In May 2020, the Scottish Parliament approved legislation to begin a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) trial ahead of a planned public release in 2022. It will see people pay a deposit on single-use drink containers, which will be refunded once the packaging is returned for recycling.

Zero Waste Scotland is a non-profit environmental organisation formed in 2014, funded by the Scottish Government and European Regional Development Fund. In partnership with the Scottish parliament, Zero Waste Scotland developed the DRS to tackle throwaway culture and protect the environment.

“Deposit return offers multiple benefits over and, above that, it’s also a really good example of behaviour change,” says Zero Waste Scotland communications programme manager for recycling and deposit return Claire Munro. “It’s a system that can be introduced into people’s everyday lives and help to normalise behaviours associated with the circular economy.”

Under the scheme, consumers will pay a deposit of 20p when they buy a drink in a single-use container, such as metal cans, glass bottles, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. This deposit is then refunded once the container is returned for recycling. According to Zero Waste Scotland, the scheme will see 34,000 fewer plastic bottles littered daily and £62m saved annually as a result.

What has Scotland learnt from other countries?

“Deposit return schemes are very successful in the world, especially in parts of Europe,” says Munro. “These schemes have had proven benefits for tackling litter and increasing the quantity and quality of recycling.”

The first-ever DRS was introduced in Sweden in 1984 for recycling cans and the scheme is now in use in over 40 countries and territories, including Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Australia.

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“We did some pretty exhaustive stakeholder engagement and analyses of successful schemes internationally,” Munro explains. “One thing we learned is that good communication is integral to a successful scheme so that people understand how to use it and the benefits it brings.”

Norway’s DRS, known as ‘panting’, has especially enjoyed great success since it began in 1992, in part because of its effective communication methods, as the legislation is explained simply and is only one page long. Because of this system, 97% of all plastic drink bottles are returned for recycling, with less than 1% ending up in the Norwegian environment.

Industry-owned foundation Infinitum is responsible for operating Norway’s panting system. Infinitum is owned by the drinks industry, which means packaging producers can give feedback on the scheme. Scotland will take a similar approach by appointing a Scheme Administrator, who will operate on behalf of drink producers.

“We have a very vibrant and small brewing sector,” says Munro, “so the Scottish Government considered the particular needs of small brewers, notably in relation to the producer registration fee in setting the final regulations.

“The scheme is going to be owned and run by drinks producers, so they are essentially the lifeblood of the scheme. DRS is a form of what’s called ‘extended producer responsibility’, so it’s all about encouraging businesses to take responsibility for the packaging. The scheme offers these producers an increased awareness of the type and the amount of packaging that’s being placed onto the market and what happens to that packaging at the end of its life.”

How will Scotland’s DRS scheme progress in 2021?

In January 2021, Scotland will be employing a scheme administrator who will be responsible for the application and approval of members who aim to join the scheme. They will also be responsible for arranging collection across Scotland and ensuring that consumers receive refunds for their deposits.

“We hope to see tangible progress around the establishment of a scheme administrator and there’s already been good progress on that front,” says Munro. “Coalitions of drinks producers and trade bodies have already informed the Scottish Government of their intention to apply.”

However, employing a scheme administrator is not the only progress that the beginning of the year will bring. As part of the scheme, all retailers who sell drinks that are part of the DRS will be required to operate a return point where customers can return their used drinks, but applications to be exempt from this scheme will begin from the first of January 2021.

“From the first of January 2021, retailers can apply for exemption from the return point network, but that’s only available under very specific conditions,” adds Munro. “It will only be granted if there’s another return point within reasonable proximity that has agreed to accept returns so that the retailer can make sure that consumers will still have reasonable access to.”

The impact of Covid-19

The DRS scheme in Scotland was initially planned for launch in April 2021 but has been pushed to 2022 due to Covid-19-related delays.

In March, Scotland’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “This will give businesses more time to prepare their premises for the scheme and, crucially, provides flexibility in the immediate term as the whole country prepares to deal with Covid-19 – the impact of which continues to be closely monitored.”

Munro explains that, while Covid-19 has added delay and uncertainty, the fact that the legislation was passed during the pandemic is positive.

“Initially, the regulation was passed in spite of the pandemic. It was very positive that we were able to see the regulations being passed, which gives clarity to businesses about what the scheme will look like, and when it will come into effect. So actually it was very positive that, despite Covid-19, we are still able to get that mark in the sand, as it were.”

Munro also adds that Covid-19 has brought a “fresh perspective” on the environment and has encouraged people to pay more attention to how it is being treated.

“The pandemic has certainly brought a fresh appreciation for our environment, especially as a result of lockdown, as people may be spending a bit more time in the natural environment and seeing the benefits of a less carbon-intensive lifestyle,” she says.

“The Deposit Return Scheme has the capacity to cut our CO2 emissions by almost four million tonnes over 25 years; it’s the kind of policy that can make a big and a steady contribution towards tackling climate change.”

Scotland’s DRS going forward

The scheme is expected to have a positive effect on the environment and is also “quite exciting because it has the potential to be a game-changer for recycling as well,” according to Munro.

“As well as this, it’s an extremely positive development regarding tackling litter. With the scheme, we estimate that littering levels will be cut by up to a third, so it’s hugely positive in that respect as well.”

Despite the scheme being delayed to 2022, the coming year will still see a lot of progression for Scotland’s DRS, and the appointment of a Scheme Administrator could be crucial.

With similar schemes boasting success in other countries, even despite the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland’s DRS is set to have a positive effect on the environment and improve consumer and producer attitudes alike.