Plastics recycling: Campaign for supermarkets to install reverse vending machines for bottles launches in Europe

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

The European Commission has registered a European Citizens’ Initiative to implement an EU-wide deposit system to recycle plastic bottles. GettyImages/Monty Rakusen
The European Commission has registered a European Citizens’ Initiative to implement an EU-wide deposit system to recycle plastic bottles. GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

Related tags: Plastic, Recycling

In response to a new European Citizens’ Initiative calling for reverse vending machines in supermarket chains, EuroCommerce has raised concerns that deposit return schemes are ‘only one solution’, and ‘not a silver bullet in all circumstances’.

On 13 August, the European Commission registered a European Citizens’ Initiative to implement an EU-wide deposit system to recycle plastic bottles.

Headed up by Citizen Service Belgium’s Anouk Stallaerts, the organisers are calling on the Commission to incentivise Member States so that supermarket chains selling plastic bottles install ‘reverse vending machines’.

Under the principle that ‘the polluter should pay’, the #ReturnthePlastics initiative is also calling on plastic bottle producing companies to pay plastic taxes for the recycling and deposit system.

Bottles falling through gaps of single-use ban

The initiative comes in response to plastic pollution’s negative impact on the environment, animals, and humans. “We need to address the plastic pollution problem at the source,” ​stressed the organisers.

When plastics are not recycled or collective, they end up in landfills or waterways before entering the ocean. “When tidal waves break the plastics into smaller pieces over time, animals like fish eat it, which is how microplastics end up on our plates,” ​they noted.

“Scientific studies estimate that a person ingests on average 5g worth of microplastics a week – the equivalent of a credit card – through food consumption.”

The #ReturnthePlastics initiative is designed to complement the EU Directive on single-use plastics, which came into force 3 July 2021. The Directive, which bans the 10 most common single-use plastic items – such as plates, cutlery and straws – in Member States, does not include plastic bottles.

single use plastic klenova
A new EC directive is targeting single-use plastics, but does not include plastic bottles. GettyImages/klenova

“However, plastic bottles…are among the most commonly used plastic products (it is estimated that globally 1m bottles a minute are bought) take up to 500 years to decompose…” ​the group continued.

“Therefore, the #ReturnthePlastics European Citizens’ Initiative proposes an EU Directive for a deposit system to allow consumers to conveniently return their plastic bottles to the supermarkets where they were purchased, to close the loop on the materials used for producing the bottles.”

€0.15 deposit per bottle

Specifically, the initiative proposes that a deposit of €0.15 be paid with the purchase of a plastic bottle by the consumer at the cashier. A #ReturnthePlastics ‘special logo’ on the plastic PET-bottle would indicate this to consumers.

When scanning the barcode of the plastic bottle, the €0.15 deposit would automatically be added to the consumer’s bill, mentioning that this amount is the deposit fee for the plastic bottle purchase.

The organisers need to get the support of at least 1m EU citizens, with minimum numbers in at least seven Member States, within a one-year period before the Commission considers legislation.

However, their intention is to have implemented the #ReturnthePlastics recycling system in five Member States by the Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow this coming November, before rolling it out EU-wide.

“We hope to become a global movement for change for refusing, recycling and reducing plastic in a fight against plastic pollution.”

‘Not always a silver bullet’

The #ReturnthePlastics is not the first proposal of deposit system in Europe to encourage recycling. In Germany, a deposit system exists whereby consumers pay a deposit fee when purchasing plastic bottles in the supermarket, and then receive a voucher to spend in the same supermarket when returning the bottle to the reverse vending machine at the entrance. And in Rome, a metro ticket can be partially paid for with plastic bottles via reverse vending machines.

European retail association EuroCommerce, however, is sceptical deposit schemes are always the panacea to plastic pollution.

“Experience has shown that care and scientific analysis is needed to ensure that an environmental measure actually achieves its objectives. For instance, if a refilling facility is too far away from a collection point, the emissions from transport may cancel out the benefits of a return scheme, and another method may make more environmental sense,” ​Christian Verschueren, Director-General of EuroCommerce, told FoodNavigator.

“We believe that deposit return schemes are only one solution, and not a silver bullet in all circumstances.”

What the Citizens’ Initiative does underline, however, is the need for a ‘properly harmonised’ EU waste policy, the DG continued.

“EuroCommerce is actively engaged with other industry associations in working on harmonised rules on packaging and waste management, and we hope that the Commission and Member States will take this opportunity to align and harmonise the definition of ‘end of waste’ criteria across the EU.”

‘Retailers can only directly impact our own-brand products’

The Citizens’ Initiative brings up an interesting question: whose responsibility is it to encourage plastics recycling? EuroCommerce suggests the entire plastics supply chain must play a role.

“Retailers are obviously a very visible part of the supply chain, but we can only directly impact our own-brand products,” ​we were told. “For the majority of what we sell, we need cooperation with suppliers, which is what we are seeking to build.”

Retailers and wholesalers are already engaged in the extended producer responsibility schemes for waste, Verschueren told this publication. “Economic operators like manufacturers, importers, retailers etc. who put a product on the market already, have a responsibility to handle products at post-consumers stage in order to help meet national and EU recycling and recovery targets.”

food manufacturing Group4 Studio
Whose responsibility is it to encourage plastic recycling? GettyImages/Group4 Studio

EuroCommerce expects more Member States to adopt deposit schemes within the next decade.

“The Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment mandates Member States to organise separate collection of plastic bottles: reaching 77% by 2025 and 90% by 2030.

“This is likely to involve exactly the deposit return systems proposed in this Citizens’ Initiative.”

EuroCommerce: ‘Plastic tax not the only way’

The Citizens’ Initiative stands by the principle that ‘the polluter should pay’, meaning that plastic bottle producing companies should pay plastic taxes for the recycling and deposit system.

EuroCommerce, however, believes that these objective can be achieved in a ‘number of ways’, without involving penalties.

Rather, installation, usage and maintenance costs should be shared among all stakeholders, and fiscal and regulatory incentives to promote sustainable solutions should be part of this, the DG told FoodNavigator.

“This is likely to be more effective than a new plastic tax for several reasons,” ​he explained. “First of all, such a tax already exists. The so-called plastics own resource levy has been in place since 1 January 2021 and consists of a national contribution with quite a high rate of €0.80/kg of plastic packaging waste it generates and is not recycled.

“Secondly, it would make a lot of sense, and we are indeed calling for this, is to create eco-design rules in cooperation with international and European standardisation bodies to significantly expand the range of sustainable products on the market.”

And finally, EuroCommerce believes that existing legislation on waste needs to be updated to encourage greater use of recycling and secondary materials.

“This includes clear and harmonised rules in the waste framework directive, public and private investment in high-value plastic collection, along with sorting and recycling technology and infrastructure.”

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