Empty Promises

I’m writing this on a grey Friday afternoon in February whilst our pig-botherer in chief is in Brussels, mid-way through the latest round of the interminable hokey-cokey that has characterised our relationship with the continent over the last couple of decades. Whatever the outcome of these tedious negotiations, there are some things that even the most demented Brexitter would have to admit they do better “over there”.

One area of easily acknowledged continental superiority is in keeping their public spaces free of litter. What’s less well known, is that this isn’t (just) the result of a more socially minded public: There is a solid framework of laws and regulations that nanny state the populace into good behaviour.

One of the many ways they bully people into doing the right thing is through a strictly enforced deposit return system for drinks bottles and cans. I was lucky enough to be part of a wee fact finding mission to Norway to see how these things work in practice. The visit served to sell the benefits of the system, placate small business-folk (like yours truly) and explore the difficulties in implementing such an approach in Scotland.

How it works is simple enough: The consumer pays a few pennies extra on their booze or juice, which they receive back, either in cash or store credit, when they return their empties to the shop. In large supermarkets the process is largely automated, where reverse vending machines sort, crush and dispense vouchers.

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Here’s what a typical machine looks like

Corner shops and high street stores simply have a weekly uplift of a bags worth of tins and plastic bottles. The amount that individual shops have to handle is relatively small, simply because, with every drinks outlet obliged to take part, the burden is shared. It can be any shop, not necessarily where the drinks originated from. (since the shopkeeper receives a small handling fee for every container collected, he or she is hardly likely to object to taking back another stores empties)

The yellow crate in the photo is for re-usable glass bottles, which sadly seem to be on the decline across Europe. This is primarily because the breweries and soft drinks manufacturers no longer find it economically viable (Barr’s stopped bothering with their deposit return scheme last year) Personally, I’d like to see a return to re-usable glass bottles, but it’s hard to imagine persuading the drinks industry to upgrade the quality of their glass and invest in the infrastructure required. Besides our current kerbside & bottle bank system seems to work pretty well. Rather than tilt at that particular windmill, I think we should all get behind the drive for a deposit return scheme for cans and plastic bottles.

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This is the weekly total collected from a typical high street shop

The big, big takeaway I had from my wee sojourn in Oslo was that the scheme was entirely self-funding. It was paid for, simply by unclaimed deposits and presumably the valuable resources (aluminium & plastic) that the public were recycling. Holyrood could implement a deposit return scheme tomorrow, with almost no public funding (beyond printing a handful of posters) The guys who currently pick up my recycling are keen to get involved-which would mean I would probably just need to add another bag to my usual weekly uplift.

There will be resistance from the drinks industry, as there has been in every country with a similar scheme. (Australia, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, many US states)

But despite their protestations, the macrobreweries and soft drinks giants are willing & active participants once a scheme is in place.

If, after the election, Holyrood starts looking seriously at the idea, expect fierce lobbying from these guys, who will decry the imposition of more red tape on behalf of small business.

Well, this particular small businessman would be more than happy telling them to shove their phony concern right up their collective arse. Not only is a deposit return scheme a staggeringly effective way to reduce waste, it would also be a piece of piss to implement.