Deposit-Return Schemes for single-use packaging: an unnecessary evolution?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Believing that they had been confronted with a 'fait accompli', the recycling industry expressed "their dismay and disbelief at the unilateral introduction of the DRS for bottles and cans alone" in an article published on 23 June in the French weekly newspaper le Journal du Dimanche.

This article is part of our special report The nitty-gritty of recycling.

To prevent littering and foster more recycling, some member states are considering setting mandatory deposit-return schemes (DRS) on single-use beverage packaging. For plastic packaging, there are reasons to believe this could happen:

  • Availability of recyclates: gaps in current collection and recycling systems may drive the development of DRS to reach the proposed 90% collection target by 2025 for single-use plastic beverage containers put forward in the Single-Use Plastics Directive;
  • Food Contact Recycling: most plastic recycling processes for food contact are based on DRS-type collection schemes that separate single-use food contact plastics from other plastics packaging;
  • Market pull: sectors and brands are committing to achieving 90% collection rates for single-use plastic beverage containers and setting targets on recycled content, which means that food & drink operators must be actively considering DRS as one of their preferred collection methods.

But if a DRS on single-use plastic packaging is introduced, would it also include other materials? To look into this, FEVE commissioned a study to Oakdene Hollins to assess the impact of mandatory DRS measures for single-use beverage containers on glass recycling and the evolution of the packaging market. The study analyses Eurostat data and market data purchased from Global Data on the following product categories: beer, water and soft drinks. These are the product categories commonly covered by a mandatory DRS on single-use beverage packaging.

Rationale behind DRS differs from country to country

There is no single policy on deposit-return schemes:

  • When the German DRS was introduced in 2003 on all single-use packaging types, refillable glass packaging had the largest market share on soft drinks, water and beer. By setting a higher fee on the mandatory deposit on single-use packaging over the voluntary deposit on refillable bottles, the policy was aiming at encouraging the use of refillables.

  • In Finland, mandatory DRS were introduced in a staggered approach starting with cans in 1996, extending to PET in 2008 and later to glass in 2012. This went hand in hand with policy decisions to cut down on refillable packaging, with a corresponding dramatic decline in refillables between 2004 and 2008 and an increase in single-use cans and PET. Contrary to Germany, the mandatory DRS was introduced to enable the switch from refillable glass to single-use formats, without losing the take-back culture acquired through refillables.

  • The Lithuanian model is the most recent and the most representative of today’s debate on DRS. Although it covers all single-use packaging types, it was largely set up to boost collection rates for single-use PET. This is the type of objective expected of DRS now, especially with regard the Single-Use Plastics Directive.

Bring-back culture: a legacy of refillable packaging transferred to DRS on single-use packaging

All the Member States operating a DRS on single-use beverage packaging have one thing in common: they have all previously operated a voluntary deposit-return scheme on refillable packaging. This would indicate that consumer “bring-back” culture does not happen overnight, and years of tradition with a refillable packaging material such as glass are needed to create the mindset for the return of single-use materials.

The study also dispels the myth that a DRS on single-use beverage packaging favours the use of refillable packaging materials. The evidence shows the exact opposite trend: where a DRS on single-use packaging has been introduced, there are no examples of refillable packaging market share increasing. Even more dramatic, in the Nordic countries, the mandatory DRS on single-use packaging effectively replaced the system for refillable packaging.

Non-refillable glass in a DRS: what impact?

There are already many different voluntary DRS operating for refillable glass packaging. Non-refillable glass is endlessly recycled thanks to the collection for recycling systems managed by Extended Producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.  Therefore, including one-way glass in a mandatory DRS on single-use packaging only diverts materials from established collection and recycling systems and creates confusion among consumers.

Yet out of the 8 EU Member States operating a mandatory DRS on single-use beverage packaging (Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Croatia, the Netherlands and Estonia), only the Netherlands and Sweden have chosen to exclude glass from the scheme.

The evidence, however, shows that a DRS has no – or little – impact on glass collection and recycling rates:

  • The 6 top performers on glass collection and recycling do not operate a DRS on one-way glass:

  • The best performing glass DRS country is Germany, but more than 80% of the total glass recycled is collected through the established bottle bank system and not the DRS, making the EPR system far more effective.

Closing the gap on collection and recycling: what solutions for glass?

With an EU average of 74% collection for recycling, there is still a potential for more glass collection and recycling. It will take a European framework with locally adapted solutions to continue improving these rates across the EU. The examples of Sweden and Austria, with a long history in bottle bank systems, show that it is possible to consistently excel in glass recycling without a DRS:

In Spain, which had a lower starting point than Sweden or Austria, there has been a gradual investment in bottle bank infrastructure and the more bottle banks are available, the more glass is recycled.

When designing EPR schemes for glass collection and recycling, Member States and stakeholders must ensure they are addressing the gaps and continue to invest in best practice schemes such as bottle banks, which have a proven track record. Inspired by the examples of Sweden, Austria and Spain that have been outlined in the study, the glass packaging sector will take an active role in defending Extended Producer Responsibility schemes and municipal waste management systems that make collection simple for the consumer and optimal for the recycling value chain.

Separate collection and effective recycling of glass is part of our cultural heritage in Europe. We should uphold it for the future.

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