Plans emerge for a Deposit Return Scheme by 2023

Deposit return scheme vending machine in a supermarket

Way back in 2017 we wrote about the possible plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for used drinks bottles so it's high time we revisited the topic to see how things have progressed.

In late August of 2020, the Government updated the outcome of its consultation (which was open for 12 weeks between 18th February and 13th May 2019) on the subject, so let's take a quick look and see what it reveals.


The intro starts by making a few pertinent points regarding the actual scale of the problem of discarded, single-use drinks containers:

"UK consumers go through an estimated 14 billion plastic drinks bottles, 9 billion drinks cans and 5 billion glass bottles a year1 and, although plastic bottles are fully recyclable, recent packaging recycling rates demonstrate that there are significant improvements to be made in drinks container recycling."

It goes on to note that "disposable containers, or parts of them, regularly featuring among the most commonly found items on UK beaches". Of course, it's not just that they are found on beaches but they obviously all too often find their way into the world's oceans as well.

What did the consultation cover?

The consultation asked questions in the following areas:

  • basic principles for a DRS (Deposit Return Scheme)
  • scope of a DRS, including the materials and drinks that the scheme will cover
  • scheme design, including options for the scheme delivery model
  • operational management of the scheme, and the proposed establishment of a Deposit Management Organisation (DMO)
  • finance and administration of the scheme, including a focus on set-up, operational costs and deposit level
  • monitoring and regulation, including compliance and enforcement, tackling fraud and misuse of the scheme
  • proposed scheme objectives, outcomes and impacts

So, as you can see, it's a fairly broad list of topics on the agenda, with an impressive number of responses totalling 208,269 - 1,180 of those were by email, post and citizen space, and 207,089 were via campaigns from Greenpeace, Marine Conservation Society, and 38 Degrees.

What will be the next steps?

As the policy is developed and refined, the UK Government will consider which drinks containers are to be included. They anticipate this could be drinks containers up to 3L in volume, but the final upper limit will be subject to the outcome of additional evidence and further stakeholder engagement. They say that the specific details of a DRS, including the material and drinks that will be included, will be developed further presented in a second consultation. Following the second consultation, DRS would be implemented from 2023.

In short, the next steps will be:

  • to seek primary powers to implement Deposit Return Schemes in the Environment Bill
  • to hold a second consultation on the regulatory framework for introducing a DRS through secondary legislation
  • following the second consultation, they plan to introduce a DRS from 2023

Principals of a DRS

One of the main objectives cited in the document focuses on changing the behaviours of producers and consumers by implementing a scheme that incentivises recycling and the reduction of single-use plastics and other ‘virgin’ materials. Aside from any monetary incentives that the consumer may benefit from, changing the way people view used bottles and cans is an important factor too. Even if they're not getting paid for it, encouraging people to recycle their used drinks containers is a worthwhile cause.

Is a Deposit Return Scheme even necessary?

Although the large majority of those who responded agreed with the principles of a Deposit Return Scheme, there were some who felt that it could be unnecessary. For example, a small number of local authority representatives considered that the DRS, as currently proposed, would have a potentially detrimental impact on existing local authority kerbside collection schemes. Their views were that household waste collections are already recycling much of the material covered by the DRS, are convenient for consumers who do most of their recycling at home and represent an important income stream for councils. So, the impact on households who currently recycle at home (and might not redeem their deposit) should also be taken into account.

Exactly what materials would the scheme cover?

Types of materials

The consultation document described how a DRS could promote a step-change in the behaviours of both producers and consumers, and contribute to higher recycling rates for in-scope materials. The consultation proposed that the materials included in a DRS could be:

  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and High-Density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles
  • steel and aluminium cans
  • glass bottles

So, as you can see, it pretty much covers the vast majority of drinks containers, but what about Tetra Paks?

Will Tetra Paks be included?

Out of those who responded directly to the consultation, many were in favour of including Tetra Paks in the scheme - 73% of respondents said they'd like to see Tetra Paks included, while 61% felt that pouches and sachets should also be included. It's worth noting that this type of packaging can be tricky and costly to recycle and although they are recyclable, some UK councils refuse to accept them on this basis. As an example, on page two of this PDF document that’s published on the Lewes District Council website regarding what can’t be recycled, it says that they don’t allow “Poly and wax-lined items (such as milk cartons or Tetra Pak)”. With this in mind, it'll be interesting to see how this pans out.

How would empty containers be returned?

The report notes that it should be easy for consumers to return drinks containers to obtain their refund. If the DRS is to have a discernible impact on recycling rates and on changing consumer behaviour, it's important that consumers can readily access return points and receive their deposit returns although it was acknowledged that this could pose a problem in more rural areas of the UK. Also, there were concerns of the environmental impact of the scheme being a problem if people had to drive a long distance just to recycle the containers so that they can get their deposits back and similar concerns regarding how to deal with the wide range of shapes and sizes of all the different containers currently on the market.

It goes without saying that the logistics of this part of the Deposit Return Scheme could be problematic, with ideas being floated around returning them when you receive a home shopping delivery or involvement with community outreach projects. There's also the option of reverse vending machines, which could work well too when consumers are shopping in supermarkets such as Tesco, who piloted a scheme back in 2018.

Final thoughts

Popular in the 1970s, Deposit Return Schemes did seem to work well prior to the widespread introduction of plastic containers so it'll be fascinating to see how the details (assuming the scheme goes ahead in 2023) play out. One thing's for sure, the more containers that get recycled, the less will be washing up on the shores of the world's oceans.

If you'd like to read it, below is the original article we wrote on the subject in January of 2017

deposit return scheme

Many environmental groups are calling for the return of Deposit Return Schemes which have been shown to increase levels of recycling and to decrease littering and use of landfills.

Deposit return schemes are not a new concept, a small cost is added to the price a customer pays for a product which is then refunded to the customer when the empty container is returned to the shop from which it was purchased or to specific return facilities.

Many of us will remember returning used fizzy pop bottles to the corner shop.

Years ago children would search their local area for discarded old bottles which they could then exchange for cash at their local corner shop.

 This practice died out in Britain with the increased use of plastic bottles instead of glass, although there was one such scheme still running in Scotland up until 2015 where the manufacturers of Irn Bru, AG Barr, were offering 30p for every one of their returned glass bottles.

Why bother?

Because there is no financial incentive to return these plastic bottles, due to their cheaper manufacturing costs, the amount of litter seen in our urban environment has increased dramatically. Discarded bottles can be seen on our streets and in our hedgerows. Even bottles that have been disposed of responsibly may still end up being sent to a landfill. Although in recent years we have dramatically increased the amount of our waste that we recycle, still bottles can be found being sent to landfill sites, littering our environment and also washed up on our beaches.

Every year the Marine Conversation Society hold their Great British Beach Clean, an event where volunteers help remove litter from our beaches and help with a litter surveying programme that provides an annual snapshot of the state of our national beaches. The results of the 2015 event showed that there had been a 43% increase in the number of plastic bottles found on beaches and a 29% increase in metal drinks cans.

Lauren Eyles, the MCS’s Beachwatch manager, said:

“The bottles we find on beaches are either dropped directly onto the beach, blown from land or sea, or end up there via rivers. The more we use as a nation, the more we’ll see ending up on our shores.”

The Marine Conversation Society would like to see a refundable surcharge of 10p-20p added to the cost of every 'single-use' drinks container sold in Britain, not only glass bottles also but plastic bottles, aluminium cans and juice cartons.

When you consider that a plastic bottle may take up to 500 years to degrade it is clear that we must take action. Plastic is particularly dangerous to marine life as they may eat it but are unable to digest it and also they can become entangled in it.

Bottle returns in Scotland

Another organisation that would like to see the reintroduction of deposit return schemes is a Scottish organisation called Have You Got The Bottle? who are lobbying the Scottish government to bring back deposit return schemes in Scotland and claim to have the support of 79% of the Scottish people.
Their website states:

“ In Germany, 98.5% of plastic bottles are recycled. In Norway, Sweden and Finland it’s over 90%. There’s absolutely no reason that can’t happen in Scotland too.”

Currently, there are three main ways of dealing with bottles that are used for beverages. Each of these has a different level of environmental impact and, of course, the cost involved for the manufacturer.


This option has the least environmental impact of all and is usually used with a deposit scheme.
Used containers are returned to the producer where they are rinsed, cleaned and sterilised before being refilled and shipped back to the customer to be used again. As the containers are being reused, there is minimal environmental impact.

One-Way With Deposit

With this option used containers are also returned for a deposit but they are then recycled and turned into new containers that are then refilled and resold. This method does eliminate litter due the monetary value of each container but the environmental impact is much higher due to the recycling process.

One-Way Without Deposit

Containers are used only once and after use, the local authorities, and therefore taxpayers, bear the brunt of disposal. This option has the highest environmental impact of all, results in the highest amount of litter but, unsurprisingly, is significantly cheaper for the manufacturers.

Similar schemes have been successful in many other countries; In the USA container deposits are much more common. They achieve a 70% return rate when the refundable surcharge is five cents, and Michigan achieves a 97% success rate with there surcharge set at 10 cents. In the states that do not have deposit schemes, the rate of recycling is only 33%.

Sweden, Denmark, Germany and parts of Australia have also successfully implemented deposit return schemes.

Sweden's scheme has been in place since 1984 for metal cans and it was extended to include plastic bottles in 1994. They currently realise a return rate of 86% for cans and 77% for plastic bottles. 

Norway sees return rates of up to 90% and schemes in other parts of Europe have shown similar rates.

The Marine Conservation Society has this very convincing statistic on their website which demonstrates the effectiveness of Deposit Return Schemes (DRS).

“In 2014 the Ocean Conservancy, which runs the International Coastal Cleanup, figures showed that along 23 km of beach in Germany, which has a DRS, 552 drinks containers were found compared to 8,295 along 25km of coastline in Spain which does not have a DRS.”

Some people may be happy with throwing their rubbish onto the streets or into landfills but less inclined to do so with their money. By offering a deposit refund you would no longer just be throwing away a bottle you would also be throwing away cash and with these schemes local authorities make considerable cost savings as the producers of the bottles bear the cost of removing and recycling them as opposed to the taxpayer.

This post contains some public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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