Will a deposit return scheme boost Britain’s plastic bottle recycling rates?

Plastic bottle recycling rates in the UK are significantly lower than for several of its European neighbours. The UK and Scottish Governments are reportedly considering implementing a plastic bottle deposit return scheme, providing customers with a financial incentive to recycle. Elliot Gardner finds out more.


The UK Government has reportedly been looking into the feasibility of a plastic bottle ‘deposit’ across the country as a method of improving recycling rates. The deposit return scheme would implement an additional 10-25p price hike on all bottled goods, but unlike a tax, the consumer would be able to claim the money back when empty bottles are returned for recycling, providing a financial incentive to the consumer.

The system is currently only in operation in Edinburgh, but the Scottish and UK Governments are reportedly considering nationwide implementation, with Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom stating: “We have made great progress in recycling plastic bottles, but there is a long way to go... It is totally unacceptable that half of the 35 million bottles sold every day end up in landfill or - even worse - littering our countryside, roadsides and seas.”

Demonstrable improvements in recycling rates

Similar initiatives are already in operation in 35 different countries around the world, including 11 European nations. The usual format is for local shops to house a machine in which customers can deposit empty bottles and be dispensed cash.

In Germany, Norway and Finland bottle recycling rates are above 90%. Lithuania recently demonstrated the positive impact of the scheme, as before its implementation recycling rates were at 32%, with the figure jumping to 75% within the first seven months of its operation. The UK’s plastic bottle recycling rates are currently much lower, at 57%.

In response to the news, Sky shared figures from its Sky Ocean Rescue programme, such as how more plastic was made in the first decade of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th, with annual plastic production set to reach 1.8bn tonnes within the next 30 years. At this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation brought attention to the fact that by 2050, the world’s ocean plastic will outweigh fish, causing many to question the effectiveness of plastic recycling initiatives at present, with calls for world governments to up their environmental focus.

Punishing those who already recycle?

While so far nothing concrete has been announced, the Government has said that it is looking into the scheme.

Joint Green Party leader Caroline Lucas was quoted as saying: “Ministers should immediately bring in a bottle deposit scheme – following the lead of the 11 other European countries. There’s no room for further hesitation on this issue.” Even big players such as Coca-Cola have lifted their opposition to the initiative, with a spokesperson saying to Sky News:”Our sustainable packaging review is ongoing, but it's already clear from our conversations with experts that the time is right to trial new interventions such as a well-designed deposit return scheme for drinks containers.”

The proposed deposit return measures are not without their critics however, with the Scottish Grocers’ Federation expressing concerns over the impact on small businesses, and the Association of Convenience Stores stating that the implementation of ‘reverse vending machines’ for bottles would be expensive and impractical, steering footfall towards larger retailers.

This is not the first time the scheme has been considered either, with Conservative MP Will Quince at the time stating that “We all want to increase recycling but we have to be careful about punishing those who are already doing the right thing,” referencing concerns that the scheme would negatively affect those who recycle at home through the use of designated bins.

The results across Europe, and the rest of the world are clear however, and with numerous charities and businesses adding their voices into the mix, it seems inevitable that the Government is considering a dramatic reform to plastic recycling, in whatever form that may be.