Samantha Harding: Message in a bottle – please recycle me

BILL Bryson asked recently, "What sensible nation would not want to capture and recycle its precious and finite resources? What discerning people would not want to enjoy a litter-free environment?" He asked those questions because, as an American from the state of Iowa, where a deposit refund scheme exists to significantly reduce littered bottles and cans and increase the recycling of these valuable materials, he doesn't understand why we don't have the same system here.

As part of its anti-litter campaign Stop the Drop, CPRE has been asking the same question. We commissioned research into how much a scheme for the UK could cost and what the benefits would be. When we published the research last week, an incredible amount of people got in touch to let us know what they thought about the idea.

Many, of course, remember what it was like in the UK when we had a scheme for refillable glass bottles in the 1970s. The common question was: "If it worked then, why wouldn't it work now?" Many also got in touch from countries who already have a deposit scheme. Unanimously they told us that the schemes are easy to use, deliver really high levels of recycling (always around 90 per cent) and, significantly, that their towns and countryside are free from litter. Our research showed that this would be the reality for us here in the UK, too, if we introduced the scheme.

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The deposit scheme would apply to drinks containers like glass and plastic bottles, as well as aluminium cans. The drink would still cost the same but when you got to the checkout, a small deposit would be charged. For cans and bottles up to 500ml, this would be about 15p. For larger bottles, it would be around 30p. As we know from other

countries, the deposit has to be big enough to act as an incentive, so that the purchaser wants to take the bottle back to reclaim their deposit. Obviously, if they decide they're not bothered, someone else can always claim the refund instead – and this is certainly the most common memory we've heard, of people nipping behind their local shop and getting the empties to reclaim the deposits time and time again.

Our research wanted there to be as many return points as possible for consumers, so we chose to use as much of the existing retail network in the UK as possible. This means returning your container and getting your deposit should be easy, whether you do it as part of your weekly shop or while you're out and about. And, of course, because you always get your deposit back, there's no cost to consumers.

Some trade associations for retailers (and by this we mean supermarkets, medium stores and corner shops) have understandably been concerned that the scheme might be costly and labour intensive.

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However, the proposed system doesn't actually cost retailers anything to run, as the costs of adapting store areas, compensating for loss of floor space and paying for the time it takes to process the returns, are all met.

The scheme should actually increase the number of people visiting these stores, which could only be good for retailers. Again, the people who contacted us from other countries talked about how easy it was to redeem their deposits and how handy it was for covering the cost of other items while out shopping.

In small shops, the bottles and cans would be stored in crates. For bigger shops, automated recycling machines would be used, as they crush the materials and make excellent use of space. These machines should also prevent little entrepreneurs from doing what their grandparents did 40 years ago!

As manufacturers have moved away from making thick glass bottles, it's not possible for the containers to be washed and refilled. So, under this new scheme, the bottles and cans would be sent for recycling. Some people have made the point that it would be better to reduce

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consumption – something which any environmental charity would agree with – and also that we should return to reusing our bottles, which are all important points.

While the scheme could save money for local authorities and deliver significant environmental, social and economic benefits, we know that manufacturers don't like deposit refund schemes and they've worked hard here in the UK and abroad to stop them being implemented.

We hope that rather than putting resources into arguing against our research, manufacturers will consider what other schemes could deliver 90 per cent recycling rates, significantly reduced litter levels and less waste going to landfill.

Samantha Harding is the Stop the Drop campaign manager for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

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