England Is Finally Getting a Deposit Return Scheme for Some Bottles

But it is too little, too late. And it doesn't include glass.

Reverse Vending Machine
Reverse Vending Machine: Put a bottle in and get money back.

Tutye / Getty Images

After years of prevarication and delay, the British government announced a deposit return scheme (DRS) for bottles and cans in England. Consumers in the U.K. use roughly 14 billion plastic drink bottles and 9 billion cans each year, many of which are littered or landfilled annually, according to a government press release. Under the DRS, bottles will be returned to the retailer or to reverse vending machines, where you put a bottle in and get the deposit back.

Rebecca Pow, the environment minister, called it a big deal. "We want to support people who want to do the right thing to help stop damaging plastics polluting our green spaces or floating in our oceans and rivers," said Pow. "That is why we are moving ahead using our powers from our landmark Environment Act to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers. This will provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily, even when on the move."

But many environmentalists complain it is too little, too late. Plus, unlike deposit systems in Wales and Scotland, the English system doesn't include glass bottles and won't start until October 2025. The wonderfully named charity, Surfers Against Sewage, said the plans are "underwhelming" and do not deliver on what was originally pledged.

"Today’s DEFRA announcement has revealed underwhelming and disappointing plans for the DRS as the government has rolled back on its 2019 manifesto commitment to include glass. Yet another broken promise. It puts England at odds with systems being introduced in Scotland and Wales, hindering U.K.-wide compatibility. The production of glass is highly intensive and is the most carbon-heavy of all container materials. It’s also infinitely recyclable, unlike plastic."
Michael Gove in front of baled garbage making announcement.
Michael Gove in front of baled garbage making announcement.

Tristan Fewings - WPA Pool / Getty Images

The surfers are right. When the British bill was announced in 2019 by then-environment secretary Michael Gove, I was so excited: I called it a Treehugger dream come true.

"It is a really radical direction for a conservative government. 'Producer responsibility!' has long been a cri de cœur on TreeHugger, along with 'Deposits on everything!' Now, in the U.K., Environment Secretary Michael Gove has released plans that make businesses and manufacturers responsible for paying the full cost of recycling or disposing for their packaging."

I concluded that "just having words like 'we will cement our place as a world leader in resource efficiency, leaving our environment in a better state than we inherited it' come out of the mouth of the likes of Gove means that the world is changing."

Apparently, the world is not changing enough or as quickly as I thought it would. That's probably due to the power of the industry. The government quotes Coca-Cola's VP of operations, who said, "We strongly welcome today’s commitment by the Government to introduce Deposit Return Schemes in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Coca-Cola has long called for a well-designed deposit return scheme that works seamlessly across Great Britain to reduce litter, and enable more packaging to be collected and recycled at the highest quality."

But the bottling industry has been fighting deposits for years. In our post, "It's Time for Deposits on Everything," I described how the industry developed recycling as an alternative to deposits.

"Coke, Pepsi, and others organized to counter deposit laws. In federal and state government hearings, they argued that municipal recycling systems, if funded and supported by government agencies, would eliminate the need for deposits. By the mid-'80s, this argument had won the day."

The Coke guy sounded supportive, but the industry is still fighting. Trade publication The Spirits Business reports that, in Scotland, the industry is "up in arms" about the specifics. They complain that it doesn't align with the rest of the U.K. and will be too expensive, with new labels required on packaging to track the bottles.

We need producer responsibility and deposits on everything, everywhere.

The surfers and the government do agree on one thing: Well-designed bottle return programs are effective, with recovery rates of up to 90%.

Where I live, in Ontario, Canada, the deposit on wine bottles is 25 cents and the system is most definitely not well-designed—the recovery rate is still 84.2%.

We have government-owned liquor and wine stores, but when deposits were introduced in 2007, none of the unionized workers wanted to deal with the dirty bottles. So the government made a deal with the beer store—yes, we have regulated beer stores too—which had always dealt with our refillable beer bottles. So you buy your wine in one place, and you take the bottle back to another.

Our nearest liquor store is two blocks away, but the beer store is a couple of miles, so I put the bottles out at the curb on garbage day, and a woman in an SUV drives by and picks them up. It's an industry that supports many low-income individuals and people experiencing homelessness and keeps the streets clean. In summer, I take the bottles to the dump where the Lions Club operates a shed; the man emptying the shed told me it was the largest source of revenue for the organization.

This is why the English plan should include glass and every form of container. It dramatically increases the recycling rate, reduces the need for virgin glass and aluminum, keeps the streets clean, and supports low-income people and charities. The only losers are the fossil fuel companies that make the plastic and those who profit from our single-use throwaway society, from our culture of convenience.

We need producer responsibility and deposits on everything, everywhere.

View Article Sources
  1. "Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers moves a step closer." Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Welsh Gov., Dept. of Agriculture, Env. and Rural Affairs (Northern Ireland), Rebecca Pow MP. 20 Jan. 2023. Press release.

  2. "The deal with the DRS." Surfers Against Sewage. 20 Jan. 2023. Press release.