Industry’s battle to block drinks deposit scheme

The drinks and retail industries have fought a fierce behind-the-scenes battle to block plans for a deposit scheme for drinks containers in Scotland, according to government documents published today by The Ferret.

Coca-Cola, A G Barr, 
supermarket chains and the whisky industry have all been involved in privately lobbying ministers to stop thinking about making bottles, cans and cartons returnable to reduce litter and waste.

According to a Scottish Government briefing from 2015, an industry lobby group tried to “force” ministers to drop the idea. The group was “vehemently opposed not only to a deposit return scheme but to any broader debate”, officials said.

Ministers have been assessing schemes in which 10p or 20p deposits are paid on plastic, glass and metal containers for soft drinks, water and alcohol. People would get their money back when they returned the containers to retailers.

A global summit on deposit schemes is due to be held in Edinburgh this week, as well as a government-backed conference on reducing waste by developing a “circular economy”.

The SNP manifesto for this year’s Scottish election promised “further consideration” of a deposit and return scheme. It could reduce litter and “help end a throw-away culture”, it said.

But the industry argues that a deposit scheme would be inconvenient, expensive and would damage kerbside recycling. It has proposed boosting recycling instead.

The Scottish Government has released 27 files of reports and correspondence between industry, ministers and officials under freedom of information law (see below). They show that five ministers received letters from five industry bodies between June 2015 and March 2016.

This culminated in a private five-page letter to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on 18 March 2016 from the Packaging Recycling Group Scotland (PRGS), aided by the public relations firm, Charlotte Street Partners. PRGS was set up to lobby against a deposit scheme, and includes Coca-Cola, A G Barr, the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Scotch Whisky Association and 29 others.

A briefing by officials for the then environment minister, Richard Lochhead, in January 2015 warned that PGRS “will be seeking to force our hand on deposit return”.

It added: “They are vehemently opposed not only to a deposit return scheme, but to any broader debate with other stakeholders on the role that a deposit return scheme might play in a move towards a more circular economy in Scotland.”

There are also a series of tart email exchanges between PRGS’s coordinator, Jane Bickerstaffe, and the Scottish Government’s head of zero waste policy, Gabriella Pieraccini, in February and March this year. In one email Pieraccini accused PRGS of “refusing to accept the Scottish Government’s invitation to participate in further work on deposit return.”

In another email Bickerstaffe questions whether it was “acceptable” for Iain Gulland, chief executive of the government’s Zero Waste Scotland agency, to tweet support for a deposit scheme. Pieraccini promised to “mention your concern to him”.

Lochhead, the MSP for Moray who stepped down as environment minister in May 2016, confirmed there had been intense opposition from big business. Many of the same companies had opposed charging for single use plastic bags, he pointed out, but now celebrated the policy.

Some of the multinational companies worried about a deposit scheme in Scotland complied with schemes abroad, he said. “I asked one major drinks company if their profits had suffered as a result and they indicated they hadn’t,” he said.

“I firmly believe that if we do introduce deposit and return then within a few years we’ll look back and take pride in our cleaner communities, high recycling rates and new jobs created. Nothing that’s so transformational is easy to implement or universally popular.”

According to environmental groups, a deposit scheme would be popular with the public. “It is no surprise that the big boys have been trying to bully the Scottish Government on this issue,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“The dinosaurs in the drinks industry should get out of the way, and the Scottish Government should move ahead with introducing a deposit return system.”

Clarissa Morawski, director of a Brussels-based anti-waste group called Reloop, said: “We’ve seen these exact same tactics in so many countries around the world: a wave of coordinated pressure from a small section of big business determined to promote their short-term interests.”

PRGS said it was committed to working with government and others to find the best way to develop a circular economy. “We support the government’s household recycling charter and the growth in kerbside collections and believe that is the best way to encourage further growth in recycling of bottles and cans,” said PRGS Consultant Campbell Evans.

“A deposit return scheme, if introduced, would undermine the simplicity of kerbside collections, reduce revenue for local authorities, increase consumer and business mileage, raise potential health concerns through return of unwashed empty containers and harm small shops in rural communities.”

Coca-Cola stressed that it had had “many positive conversations” with the Scottish Government. “We partner with a variety of national anti-litter groups, including Keep Scotland Beautiful, to find new ways to tackle this particular problem,” said the company’s vice-president Julian Hunt.

“We believe we can play a leading role in helping the government deliver its environmental ambitions and look forward to continuing the dialogue with all stakeholders.”

A G Barr argued that a deposit return scheme would be “more costly and inconvenient” for consumers and businesses. “As one of the last companies to operate a returnable glass bottle system we saw our return rate fall to the point where only half of our bottles were being returned, with consumers choosing instead the convenience of recycling at home as kerbside recycling has improved,” said a company spokesperson.

“We believe the focus should remain on continuing to educate the public on the importance of recycling and changing consumer behaviour in relation to litter through information and education.”

The Scottish Government said it was continuing to consider a deposit scheme. “We are currently exploring a number of issues identified by PRGS and others,” said a government spokeswoman.

“We have held several very constructive meetings with PRGS already this year, and have agreed to hold a number of workshops to facilitate our shared understanding of the potential impacts of deposit return.”

John Mayhew, director of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, urged ministers not to be put off by pressure from the industry. “Given the evidence and given the support from other parties I’m hopeful we’ll see a positive decision on a deposit return system for Scotland before next summer,” he said.

A version of this story was published by the Sunday Herald on 2 October 2016.

Photo thanks to Steven Depolo via CC by 2.0.

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