How the proposed deposit return scheme could impact independent retailers

31 January 2023, 08:03 AM
  • Set to be rolled out in 2025, a new scheme to incentivise recycling could put a strain on small businesses
How the proposed deposit return scheme could impact independent retailers

Recycling plastic bottles and drink cans is set to be easier for tens of millions of people thanks to a new deposit return scheme (DRS) announced by environment minister Rebecca Pow. 

The aim of the scheme is that through small cash deposits placed on single-use drinks containers, people will likely be incentivised to recycle their drinks bottles and cans, reducing litter and plastic pollution.

It would include special machines, known as reverse vending machines, and designated sites where people can return their bottles and receive their cash back. In most cases, it would be the retailers who sell drinks covered by the scheme who would host a return point.

But industry bodies have posed two key objections, highlighting the strain the scheme could put on independent retailers and the lack of inclusion of glass. 

The impact on indies
Tina McKenzie, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, appreciated the aim of the scheme, but showed concern about the impact on indies. 

She told Speciality Food, “The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for drink containers is a necessary move towards building a circular economy. The majority of small businesses recognise that the planet is facing a climate crisis and more than a third of small firms have already a plan in place to support the UK’s net zero agenda.

“However, for small and independent retailers, the scheme could mean extra space required on their premises as well as additional cost and time to administer the scheme. 

Andrew Goodacre, CEO at the British Independent Retail Association, agreed, “I have genuine concerns about any proposed DRS scheme in England. 

“We have already learned from previous consultations with devolved governments in Scotland and Wales that any DRS scheme is complex and will be a burden on businesses – small and large. Given the rising costs of doing business in the current climate, the last thing we need is to impose further costs on hard-pressed indie retailers.”

“We all want to improve recycling levels and there are different approaches to consider, such as increasing the number of recycling points for the general public to use, and encouraging manufacturers to move away from plastic and glass bottles (high energy production and high energy recycling) to aluminium containers.”

Both industry bodies also highlighted the need for cohesion across the UK in any environmental efforts, and to pay close attention to the rollout in Scotland later this year.

“Independent retailers will play a vital role in ensuring the success of this scheme, which is why it’s important that the government gives a clear timeline on the scheme and specifies what the scheme means for small firms so that they can plan ahead. It’s also vital to learn lessons from the challenges that Scotland are facing in delivering their DRS which, after two delays, they will do this August”, Tina explained.

Andrew added, “Whatever is done in England, we need to see alignment with Scotland and Wales so that the rules and systems are the same in all the countries. All too often we see a lack of coordination across many regulations and this complexity simply adds costs and confusion to the business owners.”

A clear omission? 
Environmental groups have also criticised the scheme for its failure to include glass, a material that is substantially under-recycled. 

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, explained, “I commend DEFRA on announcing the plans for implementing a badly needed Deposit Return Scheme across the UK, ministers are right to prioritise a circular economy. Despite this, we are set to disincentivise consumer recycling of what would otherwise be perfectly recyclable containers like glass bottles.

“An all-in deposit return scheme across all four nations of the UK is the only way we will radically reduce our dependence on natural resources. We cannot continue to ignore the UK’s chronically low levels of glass recycling. We need urgent systems to change that do not create perverse incentives in the market and leave our environment open to perpetual degradation.”

Adding to Sian’s sentiments, wildlife campaigner Dominic Dyer, commented, “The government wants the UK to be a world leader in addressing the waste crisis, but by excluding glass from the deposit return scheme they are making a mockery of this pledge. 

“Excluding glass would be a complete disaster for the planet, and it is therefore crucial that the UK’s scheme is implemented with glass included in all four nations. No ifs, no buts, glass must be included.”

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