Plastic deposit return scheme: environmental lawyer highlights challenges

Out-Law News | 06 Apr 2018 | 11:27 am | 1 min. read

A new deposit return scheme for 'single use' drinks containers in England has the potential to help reduce plastic, glass and metal waste, but the benefits promised will not be straightforward to deliver, an environmental law expert has said.

James Nierinck of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, was commenting after the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently announced that it plans to follow countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany in implementing a new deposit return scheme for drinks cans and bottles in a bid to "crack down on plastic pollution".

A consultation on the new scheme is to be held later this year.

DEFRA said: "A deposit return scheme sees consumers pay an up-front deposit when they buy a drink, ranging from 8p in Sweden to 22p in Germany, which is redeemed on return of the empty drink container. Possible variants of a deposit return scheme include cash rewards for returning drinks containers without an upfront deposit."

"This is often done through a network of ‘reverse vending machines’, where you insert your plastic or glass bottle or can and the machine returns your money. Once a bottle is returned, businesses are then responsible for making sure they are effectively recycled – a move that has led to a 97% recycling rate in Germany," it said.

Nierinck said that "a well designed deposit return scheme has the potential to deliver a significant increase in drinks container collection and recycling rates", but that it will be "challenging" to design a scheme which "delivers benefits to businesses, consumers and local government, as well as the environment".

"In their February 2018 report, the Voluntary & Economics Incentives Working Group highlighted that more work needs to be done to assess the implications of a deposit return scheme before it is introduced. In particular, the Working Group raise concerns that the costs of implementing such a scheme may outweigh the benefits, and that the precise scheme model requires refining," he said.

"A further concern is the approach taken across the devolved administrations, given the potential for cross-border fraudulent activity. The Scottish Government has similarly announced its intention to introduce a deposit return scheme for Scotland, and so a harmonised approach across Great Britain, and potentially Northern Ireland too, would make logical sense," Nierinck said.

Nierinck said DEFRA's announcement that it would establish a new deposit return scheme "marks a steps forward in the implementation of waste and plastics elements of this government’s 25 year environment plan". He said the scheme highlights environment secretary Michael Gove's "ambitions to take forward bold and transformative policy measures".

DEFRA's announcement followed an earlier call for evidence it opened in March on using the tax system or charges to address single-use plastic waste.