Plastic bottles, cans and the 20p deposit scheme – how will it get more of us to recycle?

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Werner/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tom Werner/Getty Images

Despite all our good intentions when it comes to recycling, billions of drinks bottles and cans still end up in UK landfills each year. It seems that if it’s not easy for us to dispose of plastic, glass and cans in a sustainable way, many of us simply throw our waste into the nearest bin.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 4bn plastic drinks bottles, 2.7bn cans and 1.5bn glass bottles are not recycled annually in the UK. So how can people be persuaded to stop ditching their drinks containers with barely a thought for the future of the planet?

One idea that has been shown to improve the chances of waste ending up in the right place is a deposit return scheme. This is where people are charged a small deposit on top of the price of each bottle or can they buy, which is then given back when they return the empty container. Schemes are already operating successfully on mainland Europe – and will soon be crossing the Channel.

In August 2023, Scotland will introduce the first deposit return scheme in the UK. Among those supporting the move is Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I (SBF GB&I) – one of the biggest producers of soft drinks in the UK, and a company on a mission to make 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025 as part of its wider commitment to sustainability.

Here’s what you need to know …

How does a deposit return scheme work?
When you buy a bottle or can of drink, whether for on-the-go or to consume at home, you will be charged a little bit more. In Scotland, it’ll be 20p an item. When your drink is finished, you return the bottle or can to a deposit return point where you will be refunded your 20p. Some shops may use reverse vending machines, which will identify the item being returned and then issue a refund, but retailers can choose to accept manual returns.

In Scotland, any shop or cafe selling these drinks will be legally obliged to have a return point, but it’s hoped that consumers will be able to make returns at many other locations too, so that ultimately there will be thousands of options, making recycling as easy as possible for everyone.

What impact will it have?
The scheme aims to hit a 90% redemption rate during 2024. Recycling this huge additional amount of bottles and cans will make a big difference when it comes to having a circular economy, and over time the numbers can go up even more. In Germany, where a mandatory deposit return scheme has been in place for two decades, 98% of plastic, cans and glass bottles are returned.

What will shoppers think?
Changing our habits isn’t always easy but new research suggests it can happen more quickly than we might think. SBF GB&I, which is a founding member of Circularity Scotland (the administrator for Scotland’s deposit return scheme), commissioned a report looking at the consumer behaviour of 8,000 people across the UK and Ireland and how they would react to a deposit return scheme. This was an important project for the company as part of its “growing for good” vision, which sees it leverage its position in the soft drinks industry to drive positive change.

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There were four key elements to the study that allowed SBF GB&I to forecast how shoppers might behave at every stage of the implementation process. For one part of the study, a group of 104 people spent eight weeks living by deposit return scheme rules. Initially, shoppers were surprised to be asked for a deposit but they adapted quickly to the idea of this type of recycling, and even embraced it as they made it part of their routine. The researchers found that it took just seven weeks for most shoppers to rethink their relationship with plastic bottles.

“Deposit return schemes will bring about one of the biggest changes in shopper behaviour in a generation,” says Matthew Deane, head of customer marketing at SBF GB&I. “Many people purchase on autopilot and will be surprised that they have to pay more upfront and then retain the items in a good condition to get their deposit back.

“This will positively transform the shopper relationship with plastic and cans but it’s important that retailers understand this shift so they are in the best place to adapt to these forthcoming changes.”

With the full rollout approaching, there is real hope that the deposit return scheme will transform recycling rates, as we know that when businesses, government and consumers work together, real change can be achieved.

Suntory Beverage & Food is one of the world’s most innovative food and drink companies. Find out more about the business and its sustainability pledges