The drinks and retail industries have been accused of deploying “dirty tricks” in an attempt to derail Scottish Government plans to introduce a deposit scheme for drinks containers.
Environmental campaigners have attacked soft drink manufacturers and accused big supermarkets of “squealing like mad” about a scheme they say would cut litter, reduce waste and create jobs.
The industry, however, has hit back, insisting that it would be “pointless” and “expensive” to superimpose a deposit scheme on Scotland, which already has a nationwide kerbside recycling system.
The Scottish Environment Minister, Richard Lochhead, is considering introducing 10p or 20p deposits on plastic, glass and metal containers for softs drinks, water and alcohol. People would get their money back when they returned the containers to retailers.
Like charging for plastic bags, Lochhead believes that a deposit scheme “has the potential to be very beneficial for the environment”. Though he is strongly backed by environmental groups, he has run into fierce opposition from industry.
Lobbyists set up the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland in 2014 to fight against the scheme. It has 34 members, including Coca Cola, A G Barr, Red Bull, Britvic, Tennant Caledonian, the Scottish Retail Consortium, Tetrapak and other packaging companies.
The group says that introducing deposits would undermine existing kerbside recycling, fail to tackle litter, and cost money. But campaigners say that these arguments have been rejected in other countries.
According to Clarissa Morawski, director of Reloop, a Brussels-based anti-waste group, beverage producers and retailers spend “millions” worldwide on consumer campaigns to try and get across their message that deposits are an inconvenient new tax.
Now they have turned their attention to Scotland, she warned. “Coca Cola, other drinks companies and big retailers are seeking to persuade the Scottish Government to back down on its plans for a deposit scheme,” she said.
“They’ve used the same strategies in other countries and eventually lost because their arguments are self-serving, deeply flawed and misleading.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, urged the Scottish Government to stand up to the “nonsense” from big business. “The big retailers and drinks industry are squealing like mad about a measure that will not only be good for the environment but will create jobs,” he said.
“They did it before on plastic bags and they’ve done it before in other European countries on deposit-return systems, but after these schemes come into being they have the remarkable gall to try to claim credit for introducing them.”
Campaigners accuse the industry of promising to invest heavily in litter prevention and awareness projects if ministers abandon plans for a deposit scheme. They point out that it has funded litter studies to argue against deposit schemes, and downplayed the number of containers that would be returned.
Critics also blame drinks and packaging companies for persuading the anti-litter charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful, to come out against a deposit scheme. Its position contrasts with that of its sister organisation, Keep Wales Tidy, which has backed the introduction of a scheme in Wales.
Last week the campaign for a deposit scheme in Scotland, ‘Have You Got the Bottle?’ took environmentalists, retailers and The Ferret to Oslo to see how the scheme worked there. The campaign is funded by the Norwegian waste collection firm, Tomra, which makes “reverse vending machines” to take drinks containers for recycling in shops.
Norwegian consumers are charged deposits of 10p on drinks containers up to half a litre, and 26p on containers over half a litre. Over 90 per cent of containers are returned to shops, and littering has been virtually eliminated, according to Tomra.
The company vice president, Thomas Morgenstern, said that drinks companies had strongly opposed deposit schemes in several countries, with over 7,000 lawsuits in Germany. He called on Scotland to resist them.
“A deposit return system in Scotland would be a major step toward becoming a more circular economy,” he argued. “Scotland is in the perfect position to lead the way in the UK.”
He pointed out that 14 countries had different types of deposit systems, and many had return rates of greater than 80 or 90 per cent and strong public support.
Countries with deposit schemes
|United States (10 states)
|Australia (3 states)
But Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the industry packaging group INCPEN and spokeswoman for Packaging Recycling Group Scotland, argued that a deposit scheme “would be expensive and inconvenient for consumers, undermine local authorities’ recycling services, and disadvantage small shopkeepers”.
She said: “We believe that the right way forward is to build on and strengthen existing recycling and anti-litter initiatives. Our members are enthusiastic about engaging constructively with all stakeholders in Scotland on the best ways to achieve the shared objective of boosting recycling, including pointing out the negative unintended consequences of deposit schemes.”
The minister, Richard Lochhead, has asked the government agency, Zero Waste Scotland, to “undertake further work” on a deposit scheme for Scotland. “Such schemes attach a value to items that can otherwise be viewed as waste, and have proven successful in other countries at reducing litter and increasing recycling,” he said.
Deposit scheme would make Scotland clean and green
Seven years ago the Scottish Parliament passed the Climate Change Act, including provision for a national deposit return system (DRS), under which consumers pay a small deposit on drinks bottles and cans, fully refunded on return.
This hasn’t been introduced yet, but the Scottish Government is seriously considering it, so there’s a real opportunity now for Scotland to lead the way once more. Our ‘Have You Got The Bottle?’ campaign calls on all political parties to support a DRS in their manifestos for the May Holyrood elections.
And it’s not just us that thinks this – 12 other organisations representing nearly 200,000 people support our campaign. Many countries, from Croatia to California, have a DRS.
As well as tackling climate change it brings other benefits, particularly cutting litter. Many people recycle to do the right thing, but others can’t be bothered. Paying a deposit means they’re throwing their money into our fields and verges, and we know from elsewhere in the world that a DRS changes behaviour.
Litter makes our towns and countryside less pleasant to live in, and puts visitors off too. Scotland is promoted as a clean green place to visit, but that’s undermined if visitors see beaches or picnic sites strewn with cans and bottles.
However, last week on a visit to Norway, which has had a DRS for 17 years, I saw no drinks container litter anywhere, in the countryside or in the towns.
A DRS would generate jobs in Scotland’s recycling industry by ensuring that more containers of better quality get recycled rather than being mixed up in kerbside recycling. As more stuff gets recycled, fewer valuable raw materials are wasted in landfill.
The Climate Change Act also included provision for a carrier bag charge, which was introduced in 2014. When it was proposed, industry described it as “a frivolous distraction”, and fought it all the way. Six months later, disposable bag use had fallen by more than 80 per cent, helping tackle both litter and waste. It’s become a normal part of life, as a DRS will too.
Some packaging and drinks manufacturers oppose DRS, confusingly often the same companies which operate successfully in other countries where a DRS works well. They know a DRS can be self-funding, but they fight it anyway.
You may hear them propose grand-sounding schemes that only amount to a bit more advertising and publicity – that’s how they’ve resisted progress elsewhere in the world.
We want a clean, modern, progressive Scotland, with more jobs and less waste and litter. The drinks industry knows DRSs work well elsewhere, but they’d rather not bother. They’re hoping Scottish Ministers haven’t got the bottle. I believe they’ll be proved wrong.
Deposit scheme is pointless and would harm existing recycling
We all have a shared interest in Scotland in boosting rates of recycling and reducing littering. The only question is how best to go about it.
The Scottish Government has been considering the impact of the introduction of deposits on drinks containers. This means retailers would have to charge shoppers perhaps 20p for a range of drinks – on a multi-pack it would mean a significant price increase for consumers.
The deposit would of course be refunded if the shopper collected the empties and took them back to the shop. But would people go to the inconvenience?
Evidence-led policy is something that all political parties and governments aspire to and in this case the evidence is negative. The experience of AG Barr bears this out. They ceased their deposit system last year when only one in two of Irn Bru bottles were being returned.
The idea was raised in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto, which committed to trialling deposit return and reverse vending systems. In 2013, nine trials were funded up to a total value of £900,000. Only one of them, at Heriot Watt University, charged a redeemable deposit.
Despite intensive communication support, the return rate was only 38 per cent. The reverse vending machines had high downtime and at one of the sites two of the four machines never worked, despite engineers being brought in from overseas.
The trials clearly indicated that people are not supportive of deposits and return. The net effect was simply an increase in the price of every day products, which of course would always bear down hardest on already pressed low-income households.
In December 2015 major retailers asked thousands of customers about deposit return. More than 90 per cent said it would be less convenient than household collections by local authorities and will not increase the amount they recycle.
Even if some people return empty drinks containers, a deposit scheme would divert income from existing local authority recycling systems. To superimpose a deposit in countries like Scotland that have nationwide recycling systems is just pointless – much better to keep improving the recycling system.
It would also disadvantage small shopkeepers who could not afford expensive reverse vending machines and therefore would have to redeem deposits at the checkout and find some way of storing returned containers.
A much better solution is to build on the existing recycling system and the Clean up Scotland campaign. That is what the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS) is offering. PRGS is an unprecedented group of 34 companies and organisations and we are ready to work with local authorities and NGOs to strengthen existing recycling and anti-litter initiatives for the benefit of all.
Rob Edwards visited Oslo in February 2016 as a guest of Tomra but the company had no editorial control over this article.
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 14 February 2016.
Photo thanks to Pixabay.