Britain fights over where to put plastic bottles

plastic water bottles
CC BY 2.0 Indi Samarajiva

With appallingly low recycling rates, some Britons want a deposit return scheme implemented, while others say it would never work. But what if this whole debate misses the point?

While Britain continues to debate the merits of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, much of the world shakes its head in disbelief. Why wouldn’t Britain implement such a program, if it could send 4 million containers a week straight to the recycling facility, rather than to landfill?

A deposit return scheme means that shoppers pay a small amount more per bottle purchased (10p or 20p), which is then refunded when the bottle is returned to a specific location for recycling, rather than tossed in the trash. Knowing that one can get money back is a good incentive to recycle properly. It creates value in an object previously viewed as disposable and has led to higher recycling rates in at least 12 countries where such programs exist, including Sweden, Denmark, Australia, and Germany (where 99 percent of plastic bottles are recycled, compared to Britain’s paltry 50 percent).

Britons, however, are not yet convinced, and some authorities call a deposit return scheme a “distraction.” The Guardian reports:

“Concerns… have been raised by local authorities who fear that the removal of plastic bottles – a high-value recycled product – from kerbside collections could make their own schemes uneconomical to run.”

It seems ludicrous that one could be concerned about not having access to enough plastic bottles. Surely, there are more than enough to go around, especially considering an April 2017 report that found London’s plastic water bottle habit to be “out of control.”

While I’m all in favor for ensuring trash is properly disposed of, and do believe that having a deposit return scheme is better than not, I can’t help but think that this whole debate is avoiding the point – that single-use plastic beverage containers should not even exist. We should be seeking solutions to phase them out entirely, not arguing over where to send them.

The problem with recycling plastics is that it’s not a straightforward process. Plastic is eternally downcycled, which means it is recycled into a lesser version of itself every time it’s processed. So a plastic bottle being returned for a deposit will never be turned into another plastic bottle; it might become a toothbrush or, way down the road, composite decking. At some point, all of these items will no longer be eligible for downcycling and will go to landfill anyways, which means that improving recycling rates for plastic water bottles does not really solve a problem; it merely delays it.

A deposit return scheme is still worth pursuing because, if nothing else, it forces people to stop and think about their consumption. But really, what we should be talking about is how to eliminate such items from the waste stream. As any zero-waster will tell you (and we at TreeHugger have been saying for years), recycling is still just a form of trash, even if it's packaged as a feel-good, Band-Aid solution that's somehow saving the environment. In an ideal world, recycling would be a last-ditch attempt to cope with non-reusable packaging; and yet we treat it like the holy grail of green living.

How about forcing beverage companies to start using refillable glass containers? It's a throwback to the old days, but one that makes sense environmentally. Glass is easily sterilized and refilled, and can be recycled infinitely without degrading. Or how about installing more public water fountains that are regularly cleaned and maintained? Now that’s a debate worth having.

Britain fights over where to put plastic bottles
With appallingly low recycling rates, some Britons want a deposit return scheme implemented, while others say it would never work. But what if this whole debate misses the point?

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