Plastic bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide Contents

5Increasing Plastic Bottle Recycling

57.Waste management and litter collection are devolved matters in the United Kingdom. The devolved nations have responsibility to set their own recycling targets. Local authorities in England are responsible for waste collection, management and disposal.

Household Recycling

58.Since 2001, local councils have been responsible for running kerbside household recycling collections. These household collections are currently provided by over 99% of local authorities and have significantly increased household plastic bottle recycling levels, from 1% in 2001 to 57% today.87 At present there are 326 waste collection authorities across England of which only 3 do not provide collection for plastic bottles.88 The Local Government Association told us that the collection and disposal of waste is the third highest cost service for English local authorities. English councils spend £3.3 billion a year on recycling, collecting and disposing of waste.89

59.In order to part-fund household collection, local authorities generate revenue by selling valuable materials to reprocessing facilities. The price is determined by the market value of the material, which is sensitive to demand for that material. We heard that local authorities throughout the UK achieve different recycling rates due to market-based constraints on what material they can sell to local waste re-processors. Lee Marshall explained:

On the consistency front, the local authority collections are a function of the products that are placed on the market in the first place and then the treatment processes and the end markets that are available. We can only collect what is there and we can only take it to what is there.90

60.The Welsh Government has recently rationalised its local authority recycling system to increase collaboration among waste managers. Welsh local authorities have the opportunity to participate in a Collaborative Change Programme (CCP) to help ensure that Wales meets its recycling targets set out in Welsh waste strategy document, Towards Zero Waste. Towards Zero Waste sets statutory local authority recycling target of 70% by 2025.91 Wales now recycles 75% of plastic bottles through household collection.

61.By contrast, the UK recycling rate for plastic bottles has plateaued at around 57–58% since 2012. This means that every year 5.5 billion plastic bottles are not collected through the household recycling system. Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Association explained why:

Plastic is not heavy and the way in which we measure recyclables is by doing it on tonnage. It does not make a huge difference if a person puts a lot more plastic bottles in their household waste or a lot less… The other big factor we are seeing is local authorities having, quite reasonably, realised that the weight of plastic was not going to have a significant impact and have then moved on to those areas that do have a bigger impact.92

62.The pressure to meet recycling targets, which are measured by weight rather than volume or financial value, creates a disincentive for local authorities to focus resources on the collection of plastic bottles. The recycling rate set by the EU is 50% by 2020, but the UK may miss that target. A lack of targets after 2020 also has a detrimental effect on investment in new reprocessing facilities as there is no long-term strategic signal being sent to the market by Government.

63.Under UN Sustainable Development Goal 12, the UK has committed to improving resource efficiency through sustainable and more responsible consumption and production.93 The Goal includes 12 targets, of which two are particularly relevant to the issue of plastic bottle waste:

a)By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.

b)Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.

64.The Government does not yet publish a comprehensive assessment of the UK’s progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In the meantime, the National Well-being Indicators provide a useful proxy for progress on sustainable development, as they cover environmental, social and economic issues. Of the 41 indicators measured by the Office for National Statistics, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the amount of household waste collected for recycling was the only deteriorating indicator.94 This suggests that the UK is not on track to meeting its target to substantially reduce waste generation by 2030 under SDG12. When asked about how the UK will ensure it reaches this target, Dr. Coffey told us that the Government was focusing on improving recycling rates in cities, as well as introducing food waste for every household.95

65.Although nearly every local authority in the UK now provides household collection for recycling, the recycling rate for plastic bottles has plateaued in the last five years and the ONS found that household recycling rates are deteriorating. We have heard that plastic bottle recycling is stalling partly because recycling rates are measured by tonnage, which creates a disincentive for local authorities to focus on collection of lightweight, high-volume materials. We recommend that the Government sets a post-2020 recycling rate of 65%. Encouraging recycling of products which use high levels of energy when produced from virgin materials should be a priority. The British Plastics Federation told us that it takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled material than virgin materials. The Government should set out a timeline for this review process in the upcoming Waste and Resources Strategy.

On-the-Go Recycling

66.Although the UK provides recycling infrastructure for plastic bottles through household collection, we have heard that around 15% of the 13 billion plastic bottles used each year are used out of the home. Dr Coffey, told us that the UK has a particularly high on-the-go consumption pattern.96 We have heard evidence that this is a significant factor in the stalling plastic bottle recycling rate. Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage explained:

It seems there is no incentive for people to recycle these beverage containers when they are out and about and there certainly is not the infrastructure to capture them cleanly on our city streets.97

67.The provision of on-street recycling bins is at the discretion of local councils, and their availability throughout the UK is low and inconsistent. RECOUP have found that only 46% of all UK local authorities provide on-the-go recycling infrastructure.98 Lee Marshall, Chief Executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, explained the challenges of on-the-go recycling:

On-the-go recycling is difficult generally. There are not many local authorities that have on-the-go recycling schemes and in the ones that do, the quality of material they get is very poor. People are interested in recycling and have got recycling to a point but not necessarily enough that they are prepared to take the time and effort, on the go when we are all busy and rushing, to put the things in the right places, which then causes problems down the line at the sorting facilities and reprocessors.99

68.Dr. Coffey told us that she was aware of the public demand for greater provision of on-the-go recycling facilities:

People do want to be able to recycle anywhere and everywhere. So that is where some of the litter strategy comes in. I recognise it is not that but it is about working with councils and businesses about improving ‘binfrastructure’ in order to make it as easy as possible for people to do these things.100

69.The Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) which is partly funded by DEFRA, provides guidance for local councils on the provision of on-the-go and on-street recycling facilities.101 However, we have heard that providing on-the-go recycling is a financial and logistical burden for councils, as it is difficult to capture a clean stream of material due to contamination. Dr Sue Kinsey from the Marine Conservation Society explained that it is often more financially viable for local authorities to landfill waste from on-the-go recycling bins due to the levels of contamination.102 In 2013–14, a Freedom of Information request from the BBC found that 97% of contaminated recyclable waste was sent to landfill or incineration instead of being sorted for recycling.103

Deposit Return Scheme

70.The flat-lining rate of plastic bottle recycling indicates that the UK requires an effective system to capture all plastic bottles, including those used on-the-go. Better prevention and recycling measures would complement one another.104

71.Throughout this inquiry we have heard a considerable amount of evidence about the potential of a Deposit Return Scheme as a solution to plastic bottle waste. DEFRA has recently established the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working group to look at measures that can reduce littered and improve recycling and reuse of packaging.105 The working group has begun by looking at measures for drinks containers, such as deposit return schemes, and will publish its findings shortly.

72.Deposit return schemes (DRS) encourage the return of plastic bottles into an organised recycling process. A DRS involves adding a small deposit on top of the price of a drink, which is then refunded to the consumer when the bottle is returned to an in-store collection point or reverse vending machine system. These bottles are then collected and taken for sorting and reprocessing. This creates resource efficiency for plastic bottles, as the recycled content can be reprocessed into new plastic bottles.

73.The UK has an opportunity to consult widely on the types of bottle to include in a Deposit Return Scheme. Additionally, there may be scope to include other beverage containers such as aluminium cans in the scheme, as happens in many other countries.

74.Deposit Return Schemes are currently in operation in around 40 countries worldwide as well as 21 US States. Typically, countries with Deposit Return schemes for plastic bottles achieve recycling rates of approximately 80 – 95%. Eunomia Research & Consulting and Coca-Cola European Partners have estimated that a similarly strong recycling rate could be expected if a Deposit Return Scheme was introduced in the UK.106 In September 2017, the Scottish Government announced that it intends to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks cans and bottles. We have heard that, while it is not essential that the nations of the UK have identical Deposit Return Schemes, it would be beneficial if they had Schemes that were compatible with one another.107

75.A recent YouGov poll found that 73% of people are in favour of introducing a Deposit Return Scheme in the UK. An e-petition calling for a UK-wide Deposit Return Scheme started by Surfers Against Sewage currently has over 230,000 signatories.108 There is also significant support from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Marine Conservation Society and Coca-Cola, amongst others.

76.We have heard that providing a small financial incentive to return plastic bottles helps people understand their true economic value.109 The success of the plastic carrier bag charge which saw an 83% reduction in the use of plastic bags in the first year suggests that financial incentives do cause a rapid behavioural change.110 Derek Robertson, CEO of Keep Scotland Beautiful, explained:

One of the things that we see as an organisation is we have a social norm where it is now generally accepted that people can throw away and I think we need to shift that social norm. I don’t think people understand the value in the product. A plastic bottle is quite a valuable thing. It has a structure to it and it can be reused, but I don’t think the public realise the value in the product. We lack a consistency and a national message.111

77.Taxpayers currently fund most of the cost of recycling and disposal of 13 billion plastic bottles each year.112 A Deposit Return Scheme seeks to provide an alternative funding mechanism for the collection and reprocessing of plastic bottles based on the polluter pays principle. Dr Chris Sherrington from Eunomia Research and Consulting explained:

Typically in a well-designed deposit scheme, the unredeemed deposits, along with the value of the high quality materials that are collected, are two of the key sources of funding to the scheme. Then the top-up is provided by the producers. The producer fees pretty much make up the difference between the revenue for the materials and the unredeemed deposits.113

78.We heard that the deposit on a plastic bottle should be around 10 – 20 pence as, at this level, an optimum percentage of people would redeem the deposit, ensuring a high return rate while preserving some funding for the system through unredeemed deposits.114 We also heard that it is vital to maintain an element of flexibility in the size of the deposit to enable it to be modified with inflation.115

Legislated vs Voluntary Deposit Return Schemes

79.We heard that management of the revenue generated by a Deposit Return Scheme should be the responsibility of a dedicated not-for-profit organisation.116 However, we heard differing views about whether a Deposit Return Scheme should be legislated or voluntary. For example, Norway’s Deposit Return Scheme was voluntarily created by plastic bottle producers to avoid tax on plastic bottle packaging. In Norway, non-refillable beverage packaging carries both a basic levy and an environmental levy that falls on the producer. The size of the environmental levy falls as the rate of packaging recycling increases, and once the recycling rate reaches 95% it ceases to be applied at all. The Norwegian beverage industry currently recycles 95% of plastic drinks bottles, removing the environmental levy.117 We heard support for this kind of voluntary system from Eunomia Research and Consulting and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

80.However, Nick Brown, Head of Sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners stressed the importance of legislated system to “level the playing field to make sure that everyone plays a role, plays their part.”118 Nick Brown claimed that, from experience of participating in Deposit Return Schemes in other countries, plastic bottle producers benefit in a number of ways:

Improved recovery rates of packaging, improved quality of the packaging so more of it can be reused and they do make a contribution towards littering, which is something we feel very passionately and very strongly about.119

81.As the UK would be layering a Deposit Return Scheme on top of a pre-existing local authority recycling system, it might be more suitable to have a legislated Deposit Return Scheme here in the UK to ensure that the concerns of local authorities are adequately accounted for in the design of the scheme..

Impact on Local Authorities

82.We heard concern from local authorities that a Deposit Return Scheme divert valuable materials away from household recycling.120 Local authorities sell the materials they collect from households to generate the necessary revenue to fund collection. On average, a tonne of PET is worth £127. However, Dr. Chris Sherrington from Eunomia explained this loss of material revenue would be balanced out through other gains from a Deposit Return scheme:

Material revenues will be lost. The aluminium is high value and the plastic and glass. There is no question of material value revenues will decline. But we looked at the efficiencies in the collection. Collections can be strained by volume or by weight and we looked at a number of different situations. We have savings on the sorting. You have, importantly, savings on the beverage containers that end up in the residual waste stream. That will go for incineration or landfill. This is much more expensive, so stuff that is littered or in litter bins would typically end up in those routes. So you save money there.121

83.However, local authorities are concerned that Eunomia’s research did not effectively take into account the impact of layering a Deposit Return Scheme over the UK’s existing household recycling system. Lee Marshall from the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Service explained:

The trouble you have with this is that it will vary local authority to local authority depending on their circumstances. If you have a local authority that has low disposal costs and access to good recycling then the impact on them will be far greater than if you have a local authority that has very high disposal costs. It is difficult to draw a conclusion by aggregating a model over, say for argument’s sake, 10 local authorities and saying, “This is what would happen in the UK”.122

84.To account for this, Eunomia have suggested that revised working practices be put in place to ensure that savings are shared appropriately in the UK’s two tier waste management system.123 For instance, this could involve councils responsible for waste disposal - who would reap the benefits of reduced landfill tax and litter clearing - to share their profits with local authorities who are responsible for waste collection, to ensure the financial rewards of a Deposit Return Scheme reach local authorities. Local Authority Waste Partnerships also have potential to create a simpler system whereby a single client takes responsibility for organising waste collection and treatment/disposal.124 Additionally, if producer responsibility schemes were adapted to make producers more financially responsible for packaging disposal, local authorities would bear less of the cost than they currently do.125

85.We have heard that reduced litter clearing costs would be one of the biggest financial savings for local authorities created by the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme.126 Eunomia have estimated that a Deposit Return Scheme could reduce littering of plastic bottles by 80%, resulting in 600,000 fewer plastic bottles being littered every day.127 Eunomia calculated that overall, this would save English local authorities £35 million per year.128

86.The beverage industry and some NGO representatives were concerned that a Deposit Return Scheme would only address a small proportion of the UK’s litter problem.129 However, in line with the theory that plastic bottles disproportionately encourage further littering, Dr. Sue Kinsey from the Marine Conservation Society emphasised that a Deposit Return Scheme for beverage containers could lead to positive gains:

Something that is specifically targeted at bottles and cans is only going to solve that part of the littering problem but that is quite a significant part of the littering problem. As we can see from the carrier bag charge, that kind of mindset, people thinking about environmental matters and litter, does carry over into further behaviour in their normal lives. I believe that targeting the beverage containers will make people think further about other types of littering as well.130

87.Environmental Psychologist, Professor Wouter Poortinga from Cardiff University explained that environmental policies often produce a ‘spill-over effect’. Professor Poortinga noted that following the introduction of the plastic bag charge, people “became more supportive of other charges to reduce waste” indicating that UK consumers are likely to be receptive to the concept of a Deposit Return Scheme.131

Impact on Retailers

88.Several retail bodies have expressed concern that a Deposit Return Scheme would cause significant operational and financial burdens for smaller shops and stores. Based on data from Zero Waste Scotland, the Association of Convenience Stores has calculated that on average, 180 drinks containers would be returned to each convenience store each day.132 Chief Executive of Association of Convenience Stores, James Lowman told us:

In our sector, there would be very significant costs to our small stores in terms of the proportion of space taken up by a reverse vending solution and manual returns. Every member I speak to says that the idea of taking back dirty containers over a counter where you are selling food is just not feasible.133

89.The Association of Convenience Stores told us that to accommodate an RVS, supermarkets would lose approximately £62,000 worth of retail space every year. There is no estimate for similar costs to small convenience stores.134

90.However, as in other countries with Deposit Return Schemes such as Norway, it would be feasible to provide participating shops with a handling fee to cover the costs of operating a Deposit Return Scheme. Additionally, many other schemes include an exemption for small convenience stores within the design of their Deposit Return Scheme. Dr. Sue Kinsey from the Marine Conservation Society explained:

In most of the systems that are in operation around the world, there is a size limitation for shops. They do not have to take part if they are below a certain square footage but they can if they want to. I know in certain countries, even though small businesses are below that limit, they choose to take part because it is beneficial for them. They get a handling fee for the products that they take back and also they have footfall through their shop that may encourage people to spend more in their shop.135

91.When we asked James Lowman from the Association of Convenience stores if they would be in favour of a Deposit Return Scheme if small stores were exempted, he responded:

I am concerned about any exemption. It is not a case it would take people - rather than coming to our store it would give them a reason to go to a larger store, so that is our concern[ … ] I think that working on a system where there are incentives for smaller stores to opt in might lead to some sort of network that we would need to make a scheme effective.136

92.Dr. Chris Sherrington from Eunomia also discussed the possibility of small retailers working together:

One thing they can do in many places is if you have a lot of small stores nearby they can set up a communal return point, which can be a reverse vending machine in a shopping centre, that kind of thing. But just putting a blanket exemption for their participation on principle is not a sensible approach.137

93.We have heard that Deposit Return Schemes for plastic bottles and cans achieve very high recycling rates. They help to facilitate a circular economy, as well as cutting down on the third most common litter type in the UK. A Deposit Return Scheme presents the opportunity to create a cohesive recycling mechanism for plastic bottles and other beverage containers throughout the UK. This could help boost the current stalling rate from 57% to around 80 – 90%. In particular, Deposit Return Schemes would capture the plastic bottles that are used on-the-go that currently escape household recycling. Deposit Return Schemes introduce a financial incentive for consumers to return their plastic bottles thereby reducing litter. We have also heard that a Scheme may encourage people to think twice about littering other items, due to the ‘spill-over’ effect. We have heard serious and legitimate concerns about the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme from local authorities, plastic bottle producers and retailers, however we heard that a well-designed Deposit Return Scheme can overcome these concerns.

94.We recommend that the Government introduces a legislated Deposit Return Scheme for all PET plastic drinks bottles. The upcoming Waste Strategy should also examine whether to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for other beverage containers, such as aluminium cans, to foster a culture of recycling packaging used on-the-go. It is vital that a Deposit Return Scheme is well-designed. It should be created after a consultation with stakeholders such as manufacturers, retailers and local authorities. Consultation should build upon the working group already in place and examine the innovations suggested to improve the functioning of a Deposit Return Scheme, such as local authority collaboration and retailer partnerships. We particularly encourage collaboration with Zero Waste Scotland, who are responsible for planning Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme. Based on research, the scheme should place a 10 – 20p deposit on top of the price of product that will be refunded to the consumer upon return of the bottle or can. We believe a Deposit Return Scheme will create a source of good quality recycled plastic for manufacturers, therefore ensuring that fewer plastic bottles are incinerated, landfilled or littered in land or at sea.

87 RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey (June 2017)

88 As above and Q406

89 Local Government Association (PKG0076A)

90 Q374

91 Welsh Assembly Government, Towards Zero Waste One Wales: One Planet (June 2010)

92 Q369

93 United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 12, ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, Targets 5 and 6

94 National Audit Office, A Short Guide to Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development (September 2017)

95 Q416

96 Q397

97 Q164

98 RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey (June 2017)

99 Q391

100 Q478

102 Q190

104 Q193, Q194

106 Eunomia Research and Consulting (PKG0086A), Coca-Cola European Partners (PKG0061A), Q235

107 Q230, Q231, Q234

109 Q189, Marine Conservation Society (PKG0030A)

111 Q166

112 Q361, Eunomia Research & Consulting (PKG0086A) Local Government Association (PKG0076A)

113 Q229

114 Q237

115 Q237

116 Q220, Q256

117 Q320, Q231

118 Q216

119 Q211, Q222

120 Q381 – Q385

121 Q255

122 Q381

123 Eunomia Research & Consulting, Impacts of a Deposit Refund System on Local Authority Waste Services (October 2017)

124 Q255

125 Q358, Q374

126 Have You Got the Bottle? (PKG0078A)

127 Eunomia Research and Consulting (PKG0086A)

128 Q255, Eunomia Research & Consulting, Impacts of a Deposit Refund System on Local Authority Waste Services (October 2017)

129 Q170, Q309, British Plastics Federation (PKG0058A)

130 Q170

131 Professor Wouter Poortinga (PKG0026A), Robert Hickman (PKG0108A)

132 Association of Convenience Stores (PKG0014A)

133 Q309

134 Association of Convenience Stores (PKG0014A)

135 Q206

136 Q350

137 Q254

20 December 2017