Thursday, 18 April 2019

Campaigners push for the most extreme version of bottle deposit scheme

It seems that the campaign for a bottle deposit scheme has already reached the reductio ad tobacco stage...

Supermarkets have been warned they will be demonised alongside tobacco and oil firms if they fail to back a deposit and return scheme for plastic drinks bottles and cans.

The Marine Conservation Society, backed by Dragons' Den star Deborah Meaden, says only a fully comprehensive scheme covering all sizes of plastic drinks bottle, as well as cans and glass bottles, will tackle waste, litter and pollution.

The question here is whether a deposit scheme should include smaller cans and bottles (up to 500ml) which tend to be binned when people are out and about or whether it should include larger containers which are generally collected and recycled via kerbside collection.

There's a lot to unpick...

Firstly, it seems that it is not enough for these campaigners to lobby for the most extreme form of an inefficient system. Everybody else must do so too - or else. Put aside your misgivings and say something don't believe or you will be cancelled.

Secondly, I can't see the public demonising supermarkets just because they don't think large bottles should be in a deposit scheme. On the contrary, if Deborah Meaden gets her way and we have to start carting empty 3-litre bottles to collection points along with the smaller 'on the go' bottles that were the original target of this campaign, people might wish the government had listened to their concerns.

Thirdly, what has this got to do with the Marine Conservation Society? Michael Gove has promoted a bottle deposit scheme as a way to tackle plastic pollution in the oceans, but it is unlikely to have any measurable impact on it. As I mentioned in my IEA briefing paper, ten rivers transport 88-95 per cent of all the plastic found in the oceans. Eight of them are in Asia. The other two are in Africa. DEFRA barely mentions ocean pollution in its impact assessment. It is a red herring.

Fourthly, I'm not sure why the campaigners are focusing on supermarkets. Various industries have concerns about the scheme while others, like Coca-Cola, support it. As far as I can tell, the main concern of supermarkets is that reverse-vending machines will take up valuable space in their stores. That is a reason for them to oppose a bottle return system. It is not much of a reason for them to oppose a deposit scheme that excludes certain sizes of container. In for a penny, in for a pound.

The people who are most concerned about expanding the scheme to include large bottles are small retailers who will be required by law to set up manual collection points in their shops. The likes of Deborah Meaden don't mention them, presumably because it would be bad optics for a multi-millionaire to be threatening small shopkeepers. The government has also ignored them, but it is worth reading what the Association of Convenience Stores have said to get an idea of the range of unintended consequences that they will have to deal with.

“You’ve got someone wanting £5 on a Paypoint, 20 king-size, a bottle of Buckfast, and, oh, ‘here’s a bag of empty milk bottles’. You have to sort them, scan them. You could not do it. It’s ludicrous. There’s three of four people standing in a queue, they’ll walk away. Speed of service is key thing and you would lose your customers.”

“We are fighting for every space inch of space. If someone comes in with a black bag of plastic bottles, where are you going to keep this stuff?”

“I don’t have room in any of my stores. It’s filled with stock or cardboard to go back. There isn’t the room.”

The ACS has serious concerns about time, space and hygiene which the government has not addressed. Many shops simply do not have the room to store a load of dirty cans and bottles which will be buzzing with flies in the summer. This problem will be even worse if the government forces them to take back large wine bottles and two litre bottles of pop - which, to repeat, are already being collected at the kerbside.

Consumers will have to do much the same thing. They will also have to transport the containers to the queue for a reverse-vending machine or manual collection point. They - you - are the other stakeholder that is being overlooked. You only need to picture your own household to see the futility of including large bottles in the scheme. How many times have you bought a three litre bottle of something and deposited it in a street bin? How many times have you thrown such a bottle down in a street or park?

Probably not many. These containers are overwhelmingly used in the home and are recovered (and recycled) via kerbside collection. There is virtually nothing to be gained from making you store these bottles at home, piling them into the car and taking them to a collection point. The only benefit will be to the companies that make the machines because they'll be able to flog the government more complicated, and thus more expensive, equipment.

The Daily Mail article quoted above continues with a typically misleading statistic:

Currently, only around four in ten of the estimated 35million plastic bottles and 20million aluminium cans used across the UK every day are collected and recycled. The rest are either buried in landfill, burned for energy or end up as litter.

By contrast, recycling rates of more than nine in ten are achieved in other European countries with full deposit return schemes, such as Norway and Germany.

The 'four in ten' figure is simply wrong, but even if it were correct it would be wrong to compare it to the figures from Norway and Germany because the first figure relates to all plastic bottles while the second relates to single-issue plastic drinks bottles. As I said in my briefing...

The charity RECOUP says that 59 per cent of plastic bottles are recovered from households, and the recycling company SUEZ quotes a figure of 57 per cent. Both these figures include containers such as shampoo and milk bottles which would not be affected by a DRS and should not be compared with the figures shown above which are for beverage containers only.

This can cause confusion, such as when the BBC reports that ‘In Norway, 95% of all plastic bottles are now recycled, compared with England at the moment where the rate is 57%’, or when the Guardian claims that ‘Recycling rates for plastic bottles stand at 57%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes’.

These are apples and oranges comparisons. The recycling rate for plastic drink bottles is 74 per cent in the UK and 95 per cent in Norway - and Norway is exceptional. Parts of the USA, Canada and Australia, which have had a DRS in place for many years, have recovery rates that are similar to - or lower than - the UK.

The idea that a deposit scheme will increase recycling rates from 40 per cent to 90 per cent is for the birds. It is only going to affect drinks containers and DEFRA's own impact assessment expects an increase from the current 72 per cent to around 85 per cent. That is all well and good. The question is whether that relatively small change is worth spending £800 million a year and forcing the public to carry out £1.7 billion worth of unpaid labour for.

I don't see how it can be, and DEFRA's impact assessment resorts to some very dodgy economics to make it appear even marginally cost-effective. But the case for including large containers is blindingly, crashingly, patently non-existent. It's a shame we don't have figures showing the percentage of large bottles that is currently being recycled, but I bet it is an overwhelming majority. Including them in a deposit scheme would place a quite unnecessary burden on shoppers and shopkeepers alike.

But this is what happens with public consultations. When the government puts forward a range of options, single issue fanatics focus on the most extreme scenario and accuse the government of a 'U-turn' and 'buckling to lobbying' if it chooses to do anything less.

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