Adam Read, Recycling, Circular Economy, UK, Suez, Eunomia, EPR, waste management, waste to resources, plastics, plastic bottles, PET, social behaviour, willingness to pay, survey, wasteless future, recyclables, diversion rate, recovery, deposit return systems

Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director @ SUEZ

This a post written by Adam Read, External Affairs Director of SUEZ UK. I follow Adam for many years and I found his writings very interesting and eye-opening for some of the most crucial issues of our industry. He is an experienced waste management academic and consultant with over 21 years’ of sector experience from both the UK and overseas. Adam is well known in the UK for his influential thinking and pioneering work on public attitudes to waste, recycling system development and the delivery of waste management promotional campaigns, and has worked all over the world on service procurement, service reviews and stakeholder consultation. You can follow his monthly blog at 

This post concerns the recent decision of the UK government to develop a deposit return system for single use drinks containers and I am sure that my readers will find it very interesting and with a lot of useful tips and ideas.

“Last week was perhaps a pivotal point in the evolution of UK waste management policy and practice, and that had nothing to do with our stagnating recycling rate or our hopes and fears post BREXIT. No, it was down to the commitment from Secretary of State Michael Gove on 28th March 2018 that England would have a deposit return system (DRS) for single use drinks containers subject to a pending consultation.

This announcement may have come as a real shock to some, although with Scotland having committed to such a system back in October 2017 it was far from being a wild card. Of course, the English Parliamentary attention on DRS has ramped up in recent months, with the Environmental Audit Committee ‘call for evidence’ (Voluntary & Economics Incentives Working Group) dating back to December 2017, the findings of which were published to a surprisingly muted fanfare in February 2018. Their evidence based report suggests that countries with deposit return schemes tend to recycle between 80% and 95% of their plastic bottles, significantly better than in the UK, with Norway recycling 95% of all plastic bottles compared with only 57% in England.

Others have been lobbying hard in the corridors of power for some time now on the merits of DRS, namely the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) who reconfirmed their support for DRS in October 2017 through a report they commissioned from Eunomia which suggested that local authorities could save £35 million per annum under a full DRS approach.

But CPRE’s open interest in DRS dates back to 2009, when they claimed it could boost recycling and cut litter, and in 2011 they produced a robust evidence report suggest a 10-15p scheme would be appropriate for most beverage containers whilst a MORI survey suggested that 66% of people would use the scheme most of the time.

But will it work – public acceptance?

However, for all the positivity surrounding DRS a survey by Ipsos released in the same week as Mr Gove’s announcement suggests we should be more cautious in our assumptions and beliefs regarding the public and their desire to deal with the plastic problem. The ‘Blue Planet effect’ (referring to the now infamous BBC documentary from late 2017) is now a recognised factor in shaping UK environmental attitudes, having brought plastics recycling back to the fore of mainstream media debates and the public consciousness. But, the research suggests that whilst almost all Brits are worried about the effects of plastic waste on the environment, only a handful feel that consumers should take responsibility for the problem, with most of the respondents saying they are reluctant to help solve the problem if it will cost them money.

The survey of 1,681 adults aged 16-75 across the United Kingdom, found that seven in eight adults claim to be at least ‘fairly concerned’ about the issue, but most do not feel that consumers should take most responsibility for finding a way to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging which is sold. Some 40% believe responsibility should be shared equally among consumers, goods producers, retailers and government, while 27% put the most responsibility on companies who produce packaged goods.

Adam Read, Recycling, Circular Economy, UK, Suez, Eunomia, EPR, waste management, waste to resources, plastics, plastic bottles, PET, social behaviour, willingness to pay, survey, wasteless future, recyclables, diversion rate, recovery, deposit return systems

The public said they would be prepared to take some steps towards solving the problem, but far fewer say they would do things to help that would cost them money. Three-quarters (75%) said they would re-use plastic bags and bottles, and more than half (54%) would be willing to buy more products made from recycled materials. However, less than half (43%) would stop buying goods that have packaging that cannot be recycled, and fewer would pay more council tax to fund improved recycling facilities (14%) or pay extra for goods that have no packaging that cannot be recycled (12%).

Around half of adults interviewed felt that higher taxes on retailers that use a lot of unrecyclable packaging (48%) and forcing local councils to spend more on recycling (47%) would be effective in dealing with plastics

Almost as many (45%) thought the government should name and shame supermarkets and shops that use of unrecyclable packaging to help reduce the problems caused by plastics.

Most interesting though were the 41% who believed that a tax on containers (such as plastic drink bottles and disposable coffee cups) would be effective, compared to only 25% who thought that fines for households who do not recycle enough of their rubbish or 19% who would support a public information campaign funded by taxpayers’ money.

So what could we do, and where does the burden of responsibility lay?

A personal interest and contribution to the debate ….

As a child of the 1970s, I am more than comfortable with a DRS scheme, having earned plenty of good pocket money for taking back the family’s Corona bottles to the local newsagent. This glass specific DRS dates back to the 1960s and ran until the 1980s when glass was being rapidly replaced by plastic. So, I have always been open to the idea of DRS, but as someone that has worked in (and for) local government I have always been concerned about the potential for a DRS to undermine municipal collection service budgets and to cannibalise the high value materials from any kerbside scheme.

On joining SUEZ in September 2017, it was clear that they strongly believed in DRS as part of the future jigsaw for UK waste & resources policy, and our CEO David Palmer Jones had worked with DRS systems in France and Sweden previously, and was an ardent supporter of the role they could play in a UK system where Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was the cornerstone of UK policy. So one of the first things I did when I joined was to commission Oakdene Hollins to take a closer look at global DRS performance and to help facilitate a discussion with colleagues and peers about what might a DRS look like in the UK.

Call it good planning, or just plain old good luck, but our intended DRS report launch was to be mid-March, but as always things slip a little for good reason, and so we openly joined the sector debate on exactly the right day (28th March 2018), with social media, national news outlets and the trade press all covering our insights work whilst reporting on the Government’s plans to move DRS forward. So what did our report suggest?

Adam Read, Recycling, Circular Economy, UK, Suez, Eunomia, EPR, waste management, waste to resources, plastics, plastic bottles, PET, social behaviour, willingness to pay, survey, wasteless future, recyclables, diversion rate, recovery, deposit return systems

In our opinion the most effective DRS for Britain should only target “on-the-go” sized plastic bottles and aluminium cans to yield the best returns, whilst delivering the maximum impact on litter prevention, and not undermining existing collection schemes.  Our ideal DRS would:

  • Only target plastic (PET) bottles and aluminium cans smaller than 0.75l, which are typically consumed while “on-the-go” instead of at home and are a more significant cause of litter than larger bottles – with a refundable deposit of 10 pence per container;
  • Be owned/operated by manufacturers, but provide the opportunity for local authorities to generate new revenue streams by operating redemption points and local logistic systems. SUEZ believes a range of secure, public redemption points is needed – not just reverse-vending machines as has been suggested by some commentators;
  • Would not leave local authorities out of pocket by “cannibalising” the more valuable materials (like plastic and aluminium) from existing, effective, household collection services;
  • Allow consumers to donate their deposits to other causes or organisations, rather than redeeming them as cash – which would be effective at generating significant revenue for national and local good causes; and
  • Only be one part of a much wider system of Extended Producer Responsibility, which would use a range of tools – such as taxation on virgin materials or incentives to use recyclable materials – to drive long-term sustainable production and consumption of goods.

Oakdene Hollins’ assessment suggests 8.8 billion plastic bottles and 9.7 billion aluminium cans are sold in the UK every year and that the “on-the-go” sizes account for 1.3 and up to 4.4 billion of those respectively. The current recycling rate for PET plastic bottles is 57 per cent and 70 per cent for aluminium cans which means that, in the case of plastic bottles alone, 171,000 tonnes of PET is currently placed in the market but not recycled each year.

The report concludes that a DRS scheme has the potential to increase recycling rates to more than 80 per cent for both plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and that the overall value of deposits in the scheme could be over £1 billion between the two materials.

So what’s the answer – which DRS approach will we get?

Some campaigners have suggested that a DRS system should cover all recyclable materials and container sizes, but SUEZ believes that this would “cannibalise” materials already successfully captured by local-authority household collections, lead to diminishing returns, and result in more hassle for the consumer – who instead would have to take everything they throw out at home to different DRS redemption points. By targeting only packaging used on the go, however, a DRS scheme would capture more of the material currently being lost either to general waste, or as litter. In fact, the report suggests that the effectiveness of the DRS scheme in reducing litter, would actually result in a net overall saving for local authorities, which currently have responsibility for the cost of clearing it up. The report also concluded that a deposit of 10p may be the correct amount to incentivise use of the DRS for on-the-go materials (less than being proposed by DEFRA).

Adam Read, Recycling, Circular Economy, UK, Suez, Eunomia, EPR, waste management, waste to resources, plastics, plastic bottles, PET, social behaviour, willingness to pay, survey, wasteless future, recyclables, diversion rate, recovery, deposit return systems

In addition to releasing our report, we commissioned an independent YouGov poll which confirmed that people want to do more to recycle, but may need help with better ‘binfrastructure’ (suitable bins etc.), which a deposit return scheme could provide at no cost to the public purse.

The poll, surveyed over 2,000 adults across Britain and found that 80% of people believe there should be more public recycling bins to use in the public areas near to where they live, while only around a quarter of people said they could “always” or “often” find a suitable recycling bin for plastic bottles (26%) or aluminium cans (25%) when they are out and about. Almost three quarters (74%) of those polled have said they would take plastic bottles and aluminium cans to a recycling and redeem point if they carried a 10p refundable deposit.

You can see from the YouGov poll that people struggle to effectively recycle on the go currently and fewer than half of us are likely to hang on to bottles or cans long enough to recycle when we get home (or claim to, in reality this may be significantly less), instead opting to throw them in a litter bin or worse. Nearly 40 per cent (39%) of people admitted that they are most likely to simply put plastic bottles or cans into a general rubbish bin – where they are destined for landfill or incineration – if a suitable public recycling bin isn’t handy when they are out and about.

Furthermore, when asked how they would most like to redeem their 10p deposits given the choice, just over 50% of people said they would rather donate the deposit to charity or public services / initiatives, or redeem it as retailer reward points or money-off vouchers, whilst fewer would instead claim the cash (40%).

As I said, SUEZ has long been a champion of DRS, but such a scheme is not a panacea to Britain’s long-term sustainability challenges, and should only be considered as part of a much wider producer-responsibility regime to incentivise the most sustainable choices for both consumers and manufacturers, which will in turn protect our natural capital.

Currently, our thinking when it comes to plastics in particular is that we need a new portfolio of joined-up, complementary, and far reaching policies and systems to deliver the step change which is so necessary, and so widely called for, within a clear and simple EPR framework. This would include:

  • Avoid unnecessary plastics: through a single use plastics tax or a ban on specific materials / products / packaging;
  • Consider the design of necessary plastics to improve their ability to be ‘harvested’ and recycled into products;
  • Recycle necessary plastics where economically and environmentally the right thing to do (working within a true the EPR framework, and including DRS for some material types and PRN upgrade to fully support the recycling of household collected materials through to recycled secondary resource); and
  • Recover energy from plastics where not economically or environmentally possible to recycle and where their replacement would need more fossil oils to be consumed.

 What’s next?

The cat is now definitely out of the bag, and DRS will not go away easily. Michael Gove has committed to a full consultation, and with the Scottish Government already consulting, the odds are strongly in favour of a scheme being introduced by 2019. The Welsh Government have also openly backed their support for a UK wide system, which would make more sense for retailers and consumers alike.

Adam Read, Recycling, Circular Economy, UK, Suez, Eunomia, EPR, waste management, waste to resources, plastics, plastic bottles, PET, social behaviour, willingness to pay, survey, wasteless future, recyclables, diversion rate, recovery, deposit return systems

However, what the recent spate of research reports, calls for evidence, and public polls show is that there is no uniform solution, no clear winner, and no real consensus on which materials to target. And should it be focusing the on the go materials or all similar containers whether at home or whilst on the go remains undecided.

What is needed now is an open and transparent debate, with Government(s) bringing their ideas to the table for full consultation and consideration. There is growing evidence from places far afield, including Australia, Canada and Europe, on the opportunities, issues, benefits and risks of DRS, and this evidence must be assessed in the UK context, and provide a system with the right design for it to suit the UK for a long time to come, we can’t afford any false dawns, because the public, the local authorities and the retailers will not stand for it.

We welcome the opportunity to be part of this debate, and would be happy to pilot a system, trial a campaign, or help design a new legislative framework where DRS can work effectively alongside kerbside recycling to capture more and better quality recycling, but only if there is a demand from the market for the materials and if the public are brought on the journey and supported as they adjust to the new systems and solutions.

We live in interesting times, more interesting than perhaps at any time in the last 30 years or so for UK waste management. With that comes great potential risks which must be assessed and mitigated. But we have the opportunity now, to truly test out our thinking on a new DRS approach that delivers on litter reduction, and quality recycling, and minimises additional costs in the system. I for one am calling on all stakeholders to put aside their differences and work together on developing the best possible system ….. now is the time to listen and act …..

 As with all my ‘comments’ they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or comment on my thoughts then please do so, I am more than open to some good sold fashioned debate and dialogue.”

Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director @ SUEZ

This post was originally prepared for Adam Read’s monthly blog on the Recycling & Waste World website


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