Across the UK, consumers go through an estimated 14 billion plastic drinks bottles, nine billion drinks cans and five billion glass bottles annually, official figures reveal.
Last year, the Government unveiled its ambition for the UK to be a ‘world leader in resource efficiency’. This would require increasing recycling rates as currently, according to a report from waste and recycling company Willshee’s, when data from the countries that make up the United Kingdom is combined the UK is only the 16th best recycler globally behind the likes of Germany, Singapore and South Korea (although looked at alone, Wales sits in second place).
In a bid to increase recycling rates and support circular models for beverage packaging, the Government plans to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS). This would see a small charge added to the price of drinks, with the money refunded when the bottle or can is recycled. Similar schemes are already in operation in 40 regions worldwide, where it has been shown DRS achieve high rates of separate collection at around 90%.
An 'all-in' vision for DRS?
Having recently closed its consultation on what a UK-wide DRS could look like in practice, legislators are preparing to reveal their vision. This, it transpires, could potentially see the DRS extended beyond bottles and cans to include items like juice and milk cartons.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Environment Minister Jo Churchill said that she would ‘not rule out’ this broader approach to DRS. The Minister was responding to a question from Conservative MP Steve Baker, whose constituency is home to carton maker Tetra Pak and who suggested the DRS should go the ‘extra step’ to include additional beverage packaging.
"We will be announcing more information on the deposit return scheme shortly but I would of course be happy to meet with his constituent [Tetra Pak] for further discussions. I don't think we should rule anything out but neither am I making any promises,” Churchill commented.
So why does Tetra Pak want to see juice cartons – for which it is famous – included in the DRS?
Clarity, continuity and climate
“We see an ‘all-in’ DRS that includes as wide a range of materials and products as possible, such as beverage cartons and juice and milk drinks, as a key opportunity for the UK Government to demonstrate its climate and net zero ambitions,” explained Alex Henriksen, Managing Director for North Europe at Tetra Pak.
He believes that their inclusion will make the future DRS simple for consumers to understand and future fit. “Including cartons from the outset avoids confusion amongst people who are used to recycling them alongside other materials, whilst providing a consistent nationwide system that encourages increased beverage carton recycling rates. It’s also a less costly option than trying to retrofit an existing DRS to include beverage cartons,” Henriksen told FoodNavigator.
A survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted by Tetra Pak in November last year revealed that consumer confusion risks undermining the Government’s flagship recycling policy, with 59% of people reporting that they would be confused by the DRS unless it was ‘consistent’ with existing household recycling collections. Over a third (38%) of those polled incorrectly assumed drinks cartons and HDPE plastic containers are already included in the proposals and 69% of people supported the inclusion of at least one additional material in the scope of the DRS.
“We have consistently been calling for the inclusion of beverage cartons in the UK DRS from its launch. The limited model proposed by the Government risks confusing consumers who are used to recycling a wider range of materials via other routes, and therefore risks undermining the UK’s ambitions to create a truly circular economy and tackle climate change,” Henriksen warned.
Securing supply of high-quality recycled material
It also offers the industry another very important advantage. As well as increasing the quantity of materials recycled, by focusing on a few materials collected through a specific route, the quality of material separated for recycling could be increased. This is important because currently packaging manufacturers face a supply challenge when it comes to securing materials that are both recycled and food grade. A DRS that includes items like juice cartons would effectively provide the beverage sector – and packaging companies like Tetra Pak - with a reliable source of recycled material that meets high quality and safety standards.
“Crucially, because Deposit Return Schemes typically result in higher collection rates and better quality recyclate than kerbside collections, inclusion in the UK’s DRS would give our sector greater access to a higher volume and quality of recycled liquid paper board, which can then be used to make new carton packages. By excluding cartons from the DRS, the industry would be denied access to that feedstock, undermining efforts that have already been made to improve carton collection and recycling in the UK.”
Importantly, the UK already has the capacity to recycle the additional volume of cartons that inclusion in the DRS would deliver, the Tetra Pak executive claimed. The UK has ‘ample’ capacity for onward processing of the collected cartons – one dedicated plant in Halifax alone has the capacity to process 40% of all the carton’s on the UK market, Henriksen stressed.
“Both real world and technical trials have proven that cartons fit well into Deposit Return Schemes, and the UK has ample capacity for the onward processing of collected cartons.”
The Government's consultation on its DRS plans closed last summer, with a total of 2,590 responses received. A ‘full Government response’ – which will cover how a DRS would operate, its scope and design, implementation timelines and enforcement in England – is scheduled to be published in ‘early 2022’.
“Due to the large scope of the consultation, we are still analysing the responses and making key policy decisions,” the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.
Of the devolved administrations, Scotland will be the first to go live with a DRS with plans to implement its scheme in August 2023. The Scottish Government have confirmed that PET bottles, steel and aluminium cans and glass drinks bottles will be included, and a 20p deposit will apply for drinks containers from 50ml to 3 litres. Like England, Northern Ireland and Wales are yet to define their schemes.