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Money in the (bottle) bank: deposit return schemes explained

Patrick Ford
By Patrick Ford
19th July 2021

Here at CPRE, we’ve long been calling for an all-in deposit return scheme (DRS). But what exactly is it, why do we need one and what are we doing to make it happen? Discover what DRS means to us and the planet, below!

What is a DRS?

DRS is a simple way of incentivising the recycling of drinks containers in order to stop them from ending up as litter.

The DRS will work by a small deposit – something like 20p – being added on to the price of all drinks containers, from your wine bottle to fizzy drinks can. This is then paid back upon returning the container to a designated machine or shop.

It’s a simple, effective, and cheap (well free, really) way of reducing the amount of litter because people have more of a financial incentive to make sure their rubbish ends up where it belongs. Most drinks containers these days are recyclable, but too many of them end up on landfill, or worse – discarded as litter.

After years of campaigning for a national Deposit Return recycling system with other charities and organisations, we were thrilled in 2018 when the government announced a planned consultation on the scheme.

Then we waited… and when nothing appeared, we campaigned again.

Finally, in the summer of 2021, the government launched the long-awaited consultation on the introduction of a DRS, and hundreds of you responded using our guides. You can read CPRE’s response here.

We’re hoping for an announcement in the autumn, which will give us the long-awaited answer to the scope of the scheme, as well as expected official response to the consultation – watch this space!”

How would it work?

As always, the devil’s in the detail. We at CPRE believe that a new DRS needs to be an all-in system, meaning drinks containers of all sizes and materials are included. Anything less would see lots of larger containers or glass bottles still ending up as litter.

Research from our Green Clean litter picks show that over one fifth (23%) of glass bottles collected were over the 750ml size limit, the current upper limit for the limited DRS being pushed by key industries, and over a quarter (28%) of plastic bottles found exceed the common 500ml bottle size, and could be excluded from the scheme being pushed by key industry stakeholders. A comprehensive scheme is clearly vital – let’s hope the government don’t bottle it… Sorry.

Bottles, a plastic bag and plastic cups discarded in a grassy area
Litter left on Putney Common, London, including bottles and plastic | John Cameron / Unsplash

Why does it matter?

Deposit return schemes can dramatically increase the rate of drink containers that are recycled, reducing the amount of nasty litter in our countryside, saving energy and protecting the earth’s resources that little bit more.

Such schemes have been operating in other countries for years – and they work. What’s more, it’s a popular idea here, too: the government’s 2018 consultation (and indeed our own CPRE research) showed that the vast majority of people who responded (84%) agreed with the principles of the DRS.

Our Green Clean litter picks have shown just how important an effective deposit return scheme is. Our fantastic volunteers have collected hundreds of bags of litter and tens of thousands of drinks containers over the last few years. But this is just a drop in an ocean already full of plastic. In the UK, we get through billions of drinks containers every year, and, sadly, only a fraction of these are recycled.

Plastic bottle washed up at sea
Our oceans are full of discarded plastic. We say: enough. | Brian Yurasits / Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic also brought our litter problem into focus again. And this, coupled with the fact that the government’s own research shows that an all-in DRS could generate no less than £5.8billion for the economy, makes it hard to defend anything less.

Why does CPRE care?

Litter left in our countryside, streets, parks and rivers isn’t just an eyesore – it can be extremely harmful to wildlife and nature, and it costs taxpayers millions of pounds in clean-up costs every year.

Broken glass bottles and shredded cans are a huge threat to vehicle tyres, people and animals, plastic bottles generally take hundreds of years to decompose – if at all – and we still don’t really understand the effects of microplastics. That’s why we feel so strongly about preventing and reducing litter – and it’s something we’ve been working on for a while now.

Of course, an effective DRS alone isn’t going to solve all of our waste problems. We’ll need a holistic and connected approach, including charges on single-use throwaway items and reuse systems to be introduced as well as reducing overall demand, increased awareness, and more efficient recycling to really reduce the amount of waste slipping through the cracks.

Remember free plastic bags? Me neither. Since the 5p charge was introduced in 2015 (something that we campaigned on, and are arguing for being extended), the number of new bags bought from supermarkets has fallen by over 90%! Sometimes, a nudge in the right direction can make a huge difference. I think we can all agree that a refundable 20p deposit won’t break the (bottle) bank.

A man and a woman look at one another as they walk with bin bags and litter collecting tools beside a canal
Litter picking helps reduce waste – but we want to see the litter reduced further by a DRS | Bill Waters / CPRE

Ok, I’m sold on a DRS! What can I do now?

Speak up! Making your voice heard is always a great place to start, so why not write to your MP to show your support, and ask that they do what they can to call for an all-in DRS?

And of course, if you support CPRE with a donation or become a member, you can be part of our movement for change and the ongoing campaign for the best possible DRS. Join us!

Do also keep your eyes peeled for more chances to act from us – we’ll continue to work tirelessly for a successful DRS.

And every litter (picker) helps! Look for litter picks being arranged in your local area, or organise one yourself! The results can be a stark reminder of how much litter is out there, but it’s a great way to protect your local bit of countryside and to show how important a good DRS will be.

What can I do with my plastic bottles in the meantime?

Ultimately, it’s always best to reduce the amount of plastics – and ‘stuff’ generally – that we consume. But if you do have some old bottles knocking about, here are some fun ways you can put them to good use…

Halved plastic bottles in a soil trough acting as mini greenhouses
Stuck with plastic bottles? Put them to inventive good use at home! | Svetikd / iStock
  • Use halves of bottles to protect growing plants and act as homemade mini greenhouses
  • Pierce holes in bottles to create a makeshift watering can
  • Make a bird feeder – fill the bottle with bird feed, push some pencils through for perching and watch the birds flock!
Homemade bird feeder with great tit eating from plastic bottle
Get crafty to make your own bird feeder and watch birds like this Great Tit enjoy it! | Nbgbgbg / iStock
DRS recycling scheme for plastic bottles would reduce dumping in the countryside
Bill Waters / CPRE