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The 40 year deposit debate: ‘Don’t let history repeat itself’, warns CPRE

18 February 2019

CPRE urges the Government to support an ‘all-in’ deposit return system that collects every drinks can and bottle as it launches a new consultation.

England is one step closer to getting a deposit system that could boost recycling for bottles and cans to more than 90%, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launches a new consultation today on two design options for what the system will include and how it will operate [1].

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) welcomes the opportunity to help make sure that England gets the most economically viable and environmentally beneficial system, but urges the Government to learn from past mistakes on deposits for bottles and cans when consulting retailers and the packaging industry.

The warning comes as the countryside charity highlights extracts from archived transcripts demonstrating that the decision to reject a Beverage Container Bill in 1981 – which would have required all cider, beer and soft drink bottles to carry a deposit – by the House of Lords, was done so on the grounds that industry itself would deal with the waste it was generating [2]. This effectively closed the debate on deposits for drinks containers for more than a generation.

The transcript shows that 26 trade associations lobbied the Government to reject a deposit system, on the grounds they would voluntarily take action to deal with the packaging they create. Almost forty years on, the polluted state of our countryside, streets and oceans proves that any effort they may have made has been resoundingly unsuccessful.

Last year, the packaging industry paid just £73 million towards the £1 billion clean-up costs of dealing with their products, while tax payers were left to foot the remaining 93% of the £1 billion bill [3]. CPRE concludes this is a clear demonstration that comments from industry, which swayed the rejection of Beverage Container Bill almost 40 years ago, were nothing but empty promises made solely with the purpose of protecting their profits.

Lord Beaumont, who championed the Bill in the 1980s, claimed with remarkable prescience that a deposit return system would ‘considerably diminish the amount of dangerous litter in the towns and countryside; shift part of the burden of dealing with the litter from the public and public authorities to those who caused it – those who made, sold and bought the products; and slow down the consumption of scarce resources [4].’

Samantha Harding, litter programme director at CPRE, said: ‘Over the past 40 years the evidence of the benefits of deposit return systems has only got stronger. Depressingly, parts of industry are still making the same false claims and empty promises in an attempt to thwart its introduction, or limit what it includes. Retailers and packaging producers got their way in 1981 and look at the mess we’re in now. Consumption has sky-rocketed, while recycling has flat-lined; our countryside, rivers and oceans are choked with plastic; and many of the drinks containers are collected so inefficiently that their poor quality means we struggle to recycle them within the UK, and the rest of the world no longer wants them either.

‘By introducing a deposit system that accepts and collects every single can and bottle, Michael Gove has a golden opportunity to end growing scepticism around current recycling methods by boosting recycling rates of drinks cans and bottles to near perfection. This would make such a difference to the health of our environment and relieve struggling local councils of the huge financial burden of waste management by making those who produce these vast amounts of packaging rightfully liable for the costs of dealing with it. We cannot let history repeat itself on deposits for cans and bottles.’

This new consultation from Defra will run for 12 weeks and comes following an announcement, in March last year, that the Government would ‘introduce a deposit return scheme in England for single use drinks containers’ [5].

Notes to Editor:

1. Defra's consultation launched on Monday 18 February.
2. Beverage Container Bill – House of Lords Debate, 19 November 1981:
‘The Government look to industry, in co-operation with other interested parties, to build further on the progress which it has already achieved and plans to achieve with regard to beverage containers. As I think I have indicated in this speech, the Government, while supporting the underlying objectives, could not, for the reasons I have described, support the Bill as legislation.’
3. CPRE analysis of HMCLG’s Revenue Overturn from 2016/17.
4. Extract from an article in The Times, 20 November 1981, Returnable bottle Bill rejected.
5. Deposit return scheme in fight against plastic: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/deposit-return-scheme-in-fight-against-plastic 

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