• Atlantean Media

Around the world in deposit return schemes

Updated: Mar 15, 2019

England is following Scotland’s footsteps with plans to implement a deposit return scheme to improve plastic collection and recycling rates. Around the world, these harvesting schemes have been in place for years with mixed experiences. What can the country learn from the experiences?

An app developed by Tomra and Cleanaway lets users see the operational status of reverse vending machines in real time. [Image credit: TOMRA]

There is no calming the velocity of media headlines reporting that the world is facing a crisis when it comes to plastics. From videos of shark stomachs full of bottles, or reports of shrimp containing microplastics – the world has woken up to the fact that our disposable culture and reliance on plastic in the past is now coming back to haunt us in the present and well into the future.

As well as its latest crackdown on straws – 8.5 billion of them a year, apparently – Defra has now turned its attention to the estimated three billion plastic bottles not captured for recycling and ending up in the environment.

At the end of March it announced plans for a deposit return scheme, otherwise known as a DRS. The concept is relatively straightforward: a cost or ‘deposit’ is added when people buy a drink, in the 8p-22p range depending on the size of the container.

Once finished, this money can then be redeemed for the bottle or container, either by scanning it when you put it in a reverse vending machine or through returning it directly to the shop.

The idea is that by associating a cost to a product – ie a plastic bottle – people will be less inclined to simply throw it away, with the item in the process being lost from the recycling system. The waste sector has been trying to change the perception of waste as instead a resource for years. Now a DRS is designed to encourage the public to do the same thing.

Following in the steps of Scotland where a consultation recently went live, a consultation will also be launched later this year for England to address the scheme, the target materials and containers, the options for harvesting the materials and logistics involved.

What can England learn from the other 38 countries around the world using a DRS, where up to 95% of cans and plastic bottles are returned? Here are a few examples we’ve tracked down.


In December 2017 New South Wales introduced what it is calling a ‘Return and Earn’ campaign, as part of a wider goal to reduce litter volume in the state by 40% by 2020.

Interestingly, the project was designed to complement as existing kerbside recycling service already in operation.

The Return and Earn scheme covers 150ml-3 litre PET, PET, HDPE drinks containers and users get a 10-cent refund for every eligible drink container returned.

The NSW government mandated that network operator Tomra had a minimum collection point distribution in place.

After three months, more than 150 million containers were returned and refunded using 280 collection points across NSW.

To ensure it continues to run efficiently, an app was developed by Tomra with waste management company Cleanaway. This lets users see in real time the operational status of their nearest vending machine. People returning containers also have the option for an electronic transfer using PayPal

“Environment minister Gabrielle Upton said: “Almost 50 per cent of litter by volume is made up of beverage containers – Return and Earn will capture 43 per cent of this litter.”


One concern that raises its head during DRS discussions is the potential for fraud. During discussions of Scotland’s DRS, worries escalated of people scavenging for bottles in bins, or lorries containing up to £32,000 of deposits being targeted by thieves.

However, in Norway – a nation often seen as the poster-child for successful return schemes – such activity hasn’t been the case, according to Kjell Olav Maldum, the managing director of Norwegian company Infinitum.

There were initial cases of shops putting bags of bottles outside and having them stolen but since then they all keep them inside, he says.

“Of course, you will always have some kind of fraud – if you are running a grocery store there is a threat of theft with people stealing goods from the store - but overall it’s a very small problem - it’s next to nothing. The reason is we have efficient logistics, we have traceability in the logistics chain so it’s not a problem.”

It was in 1999 when the country introduced a deposit scheme, now boasting a 98% recovery rate for PET plastic bottles. Within this total, 88% are collected through a reverse vending machine network.

A further 10% are still collected through household collection systems; with 9% of this amount sent for energy recovery. In summary, 89% of all PET bottles sold in Norway are now recycled.

“Maybe 0.5% of PET bottles are going into the environment now – you are talking less than 100 tonnes per year,” adds Maldum.

England and Wales

While it’s important to note the mixed results around the world, the maturity of the UK domestic recycling market should be considered, especially with a recycling rate jumping from 12% at the turn of the century to 45‐53% today.

“Let’s not cannibalise existing collection schemes which have already got solid foundations.”

A report by Oakdene Hollins and SUEZ – How a deposit return scheme for ‘on the go’ could be designed for the UK – concluded that: “SUEZ considers that materials consumed in the household or business should, in many instances, continue to utilise the existing systems of collection and treatment.”

Dr Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK says that if there are any predictions on which country the UK is most likely to emulate when it comes to a DRS, it’s likely to be Norway. However, he cautions rushing into any initiatives too quickly.

Read says: “The UK has already sunk investment into Material Recovery Facilities, kerbside sorting and educating the public that everything goes into one box. To introduce a DRS that targets all containers (not just those consumed on the go), raises the question of what happens to that investment and progress so far? Let’s not cannibalise existing collection schemes which have already got solid foundations. It’s much better to simply target DRS at on the go packaging – smaller plastic bottles and cans in principle which contribute to street litter.”

Global deposit schemes have proven that quick gains can be made shortly after being rolled out. It’s a question of whether the key driver is to reduce litter, capture material that escapes from household recycling routes, or improve overall recycling quality. Either way, authorities must now decide how to implement a scheme that will work best, taking into account the geographical, political and environmental factors in England. ###

- The full version of this article will appear in the July-August edition of WMW magazine.