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Kitty Thompson: Use Scottish deposit return scheme delay to create a UK-wide approach

Kitty Thompson, CEN's Nature Programme Manager

The First Minister of Scotland's decision to delay the Scottish government's deposit return scheme (DRS) is an opportunity for conservative environmentalists to win the case for a more ambitious UK-wide approach.

Recycling is one of the most popular environmental actions for consumers. Introducing a DRS scheme where you play a 20p deposit on single-use drink containers, which you can reclaim by returning to a reverse vending machine, should have been a popular move to boost recycling.

Many businesses also see the idea as an opportunity. Big drinks brands, such as Coca-Cola, have set targets to up the recycled content of their packaging. DRS is a proven mechanism for drink firms to shore up their supply of recycled PET, the most in-demand type of plastic, which is increasingly challenging to procure.

But, a successful scheme relies on support from the drinks industry, which will ultimately be responsible for delivering it, changing the products' packaging and paying the associated fees. This is what caused the Scottish government to their scheme, which was due in August this year.

Businesses were worried about the additional costs, details and timetable of Scotland's DRS. Because Scotland was going alone, some businesses were considering whether to pull product lines from the Scottish market rather than face the additional cost burden of having different labels in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK market.

While the industry certainly supported the DRS in principle, it is no wonder that they are not supportive of what they ended up with. Scottish Conservative MSP Maurice Golden was right when he pointed out that whilst "launched with good intent, it's become a costly, complex, confusing mess."

The delay could have been avoided if the Scottish government had listened to the voices within the drinks industry. Businesses called for a UK-wide DRS scheme to lower the burden, complexity, and barriers to recycling drinks containers rather than a divided approach across the UK internal market.

Plans for introducing DRS across the UK differ. Scotland and Wales, for example, are creating a scheme that includes glass containers, whilst England and Northern Ireland are currently not. There are also different dates for the respective schemes to launch, with England's DRS due towards the end of 2025. This split approach creates complications and costs for businesses who want to sell their products from Cornwall to Inverness to Aberystwyth with one container and label.

At least this week's announcement of a further delay to the Scottish scheme comes with one potential silver lining: there is a new opportunity to harmonise all of the schemes within the UK. Coherence across the union will be key to making a DRS that works for businesses, consumers, and the environment across the UK.

We must be careful to use the opportunity this delay represents. Defra has been working on its DRS since 2018, and reopening debates about whether to include glass initially within the scheme risks further delays.

Instead, the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments must take a common approach, ensuring it's as easy as possible to integrate glass, cartons and other materials as easily as possible in the future.

Scotland's delay to the DRS doesn't mean the idea is over. It is important to remember that Germany has had DRS since the 1990s. The technology we are seeking to adopt is far from new. It has been proven to work in many countries, with consumers and businesses using the scheme.

However, we need to get the UK's schemes off the ground before our designs - Defra has been working on it since 2018 - become outdated. Wales is already piloting a digital DRS to enhance local authorities' kerbside collection services. Although currently very much in its infancy, the UK government should embrace the concept of a digital DRS and support these trials and advancements rather than shy away from them. The rise of reusable packaging also represents another potential challenge to DRS in its proposed form.

If we are going to boost our recycling rates, we need to deliver a UK-wide approach to DRS. The delay to Scotland's DRS was inevitable given businesses' concerns and the implementation problems, but it is an opportunity to join up the approaches across the UK. As well as providing businesses with the details they need to make the scheme a success in the short-term, the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments should use this extra time to develop a DRS that can adapt and grow with our future waste and resources ambitions.


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