Spotlight: Let’s bottle it! Piloting a deposit return scheme

Bottle return schemes are proven around the world to reduce waste and create jobs and income streams. Why aren’t UK cities doing it yet and how can we start? In this guest post, Adriana Moreno Pelayo, Arup Associate in City Economics & Planning and Leaders Plus 8 graduate, shares her bottle deposit Proposal for London, which won ‘Most feasible’ at June’s session – have a look at the other proposals here.


Every week, each adult buys on average 3 plastic water bottles in London, amounting to 1.6bn bottles a year. These often end up in landfill, left in parks or discarded on the street, resulting in harmful impact on public spaces and the environment. This is a long-running issue, aggravated by the pandemic which has seen an increase in the consumption of single use plastics as people sought to avoid reusing containers for sanitary reasons. As the consumption of plastic bottles increases, recycling rates have stagnated at 57% – clearly more needs to be done.

A slow national implementation

Source: Peckhamryepark.org

While the problem of plastic recycling is well established, the Government keeps kicking the ‘bottle’ down the road. The Government launched a consultation in 2019 asking for views on the potential implementation of a deposit return scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The scheme would incentivise consumers to return glass and plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans and other containers for recycling through the return of a small deposit included in the price of the product.

 

 

Consultation feedback showed strong appetite for such a programme, with 84% of participants supporting the principles behind it. Despite public support and enthusiasm, the Government has pushed back implementation of a national deposit return initiative to 2024 at the earliest. Scotland, however, is ahead of the game, introducing their own bottle return scheme from July 2022.

Why wait? A proposed model for London

London could implement a new bottle deposit return system earlier as a UK city pilot, aiming to better handle plastic waste, reduce the impact on the environment and improve the cleanliness of public spaces. In Europe, 10 countries have implemented deposit refund schemes, some a long time ago, with return rates ranging between 82% in Estonia and 98% in Germany. Supermarkets in the UK like Iceland also support such a scheme.

So how could it work in London? The scheme would, at first, focus exclusively on plastic bottles, currently one of our biggest recycling challenges. It would work as follows:

  • Any consumer buying a plastic bottle would pay a small deposit of about 25p.
  • To get the deposit back, the customer would then return the bottle to a collection point, ensuring the bottle is recycled.
  • If the customer does not return it someone else is likely to if they find they bottle on the street as there is a financial incentive to do so.

    Source: Author’s own

Bottle return points would be automated with machines set up for collection, leading to an easy and cheap operation once the scheme is set up. While these machines are typically located in supermarkets, they could also be installed in public spaces like parks to maximise collection and recycling rates and encourage the public to take more care of our open spaces. The objective is both to improve recycling and to reduce waste left around the city.

The scheme could start with a pilot as early as 2022 with a small number of supermarkets signing up for it. Successful implementation would require close partnership working between the GLA, local authorities, supermarkets and potentially other organisations like Royal Parks or ReLondon (an organisation focused on the management and waste and promotion of circular economy in London). Funding could potentially come from a sponsor who would provide branding for the scheme, receiving significant publicity in return. Similar to the Santander cycles, collection points could be branded, enabling brand visibility all around the city. With a robust monitoring and evaluation system in place, the scheme would provide early lessons learnt to further roll out the scheme to more supermarkets and to London overall, before the national implementation.

Benefits for London and beyond

The most obvious value of the initiative is increased and improved recycling. Currently, the UK sends abroad the equivalent of three and a half Olympic swimming pools every single day in plastic waste, often ending up in landfills. A deposit return scheme that clearly separates plastic bottles would make it easier to recycle those and encourage the UK could have better control over their future destiny.

Not only would the scheme enable London to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste, but it could support with the creation of new industries and jobs built on the recycling of plastics.

With the move to more sustainable ways of living, plastic is becoming a versatile material that can be used to produce all sorts of products including bikinis, active wear, rugs, shoes or yoga matts. There are clear opportunities from these industries, linking waste reduction to recycling to new materials and ultimately promoting a circular economy approach. According to consultancy McKinsey, by 2050 nearly 60 per cent of plastics production could be based on plastic reuse and recycling.

Graph showing global polymer demand 2016-50 and how it could be covered
Source: McKinsey

Delivering such as scheme in London would demonstrate that the concept can work in the British context. It would enable data to be collected and act as a learning process for a national implementation, potentially making the national rollout more likely.

So, why wait? Bottle deposit programmes are proven to work in other countries and will eventually reach the UK. With such a scheme in place, we can reduce our environmental impact and improve the cleanliness of public spaces, better protecting one of London’s best assets, our parks and open spaces.

This is an opportunity for London to lead the way in reducing waste and promoting sustainable and innovative ways of supporting economic recovery post-Covid.