A deposit return scheme will see reverse vending machines appear in shops across the UK

Delayed deposit return scheme coming to England, Wales, and NI – what the experts say

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced plans – after much delay – for a plastic bottle and aluminium can deposit return scheme (DRS) in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Key facts

  • It comes five years after Michael Gove MP first promised a deposit return scheme
  • It does not include glass, which many campaigners say is an oversight and also goes against a Conservative Party manifesto pledge
  • Reverse vending machines (RVM) to collect returned packaging is the route taken, although government is not ruling out a supplementary digital deposit return scheme (DDRS)
  • A target is in place to collect over 85% of returnable drinks containers once the scheme is up and running
  • Focus now turns to the appointment process of the deposit management organisation – an independent, industry-led organisation, which will be established to run the scheme and set the refundable deposit amount
  • The new plans take the deposit return scheme down a different path to the Scottish DRS, which is closer to implementation but has question marks over its viability.

The background

The UK government said on 20 January that recycling plastic bottles and drink cans is set to become easier for tens of millions of people after it laid down a path for a deposit return scheme for plastic drinks bottle and cans in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Through small cash deposits placed on single-use drinks containers, the aim is to incentivise people to recycle their drinks bottles and cans, therefore reducing litter and plastic pollution across the UK.

Retailers who sell drinks covered by the scheme would likely host a return point, probably through a network of reverse vending machines. The scheme is set to be introduced in 2025, which marks the second delay – Defra had originally targeted a 2023 launch before putting it back to 2024 last year.

Defra said there are international examples showing a deposit return scheme can become “a simple part of daily life to make recycling easier”, citing recycling rates above 90% in Germany, Finland and Norway. Current recycling rates for drinks containers in the UK sit at around 70%.

As it stands, however, there will be a deposit return scheme in the UK this year, with Scotland running its own DRS administered by Circularity Scotland. Question marks have been raised about its viability, with concerns that supplies will be reduced to the country and consumers may face price rises as a result.

Nevertheless, Scotland is set to introduce its deposit return scheme in August, with a deposit amount set at 20p and both manual returns and reverse vending machines being used to deliver it.

What’s everyone saying about the DRS?

Green Retail World has gathered together a wide selection of views on Defra’s decision, below.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We want to support people who want to do the right thing to help stop damaging plastics polluting our green spaces or floating in our oceans and rivers.

“That is why we are moving ahead using our powers from our landmark Environment Act to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. This will provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily, even when on the move.”

Dusan Stojankic, vice president of operations at Coca-Cola in Great Britain & Ireland, said: “We strongly welcome today’s commitment by the government to introduce deposit return schemes in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Coca-Cola has long called for a well-designed deposit return scheme that works seamlessly across Great Britain to reduce litter, and enable more packaging to be collected and recycled at the highest quality.”

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “The retail industry is committed to increasing rates of recycling throughout the UK. Whilst we believe an effectively designed deposit return scheme could help to deliver this, in the current economic environment we believe they would be best met through including drinks containers in a well-implemented, effective Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Scheme.

“Retailers’ experience of establishing a Scottish DRS shows that implementation is immensely more expensive and complex than anticipated, which would make a 2025 launch incredibly challenging. We question whether this approach is truly sustainable, as the significant investment required by the scheme would create immediate and large costs for retailers, increasing inflationary pressures at a time when many households are already struggling.”

He added: “If the UK government is to press ahead, it must ensure the scheme is aligned with the devolved nations, allowing efficiencies of scale to reduce the costs and complexity which will face consumers. They must also ensure the scheme is cost-neutral for retailers by committing to a fair retail handling fee.”

James Lowman, CEO of the Association of Convenience Stores, said: “We welcome the government’s ambition to introduce a workable deposit return scheme for retailers, consumers and the wider industry.

“It is essential that the scheme is interoperable across the UK, and we must learn the lessons from the introduction of the Scottish DRS to ensure that the scheme in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is both effective and sustainable. The government’s timeline of 2025 is ambitious given the planned appointment of a deposit management organisation in 2024, but we are committed to working with the government, retailers and suppliers to introduce a scheme that works for everyone.”

Alice Rackley, CEO of DDRS technology company Polytag, said: “As staunch believers in the importance of leveraging digital technologies to reverse stagnating recycling rates, we are encouraged that the government is willing to consider a DDRS that can can work in tandem with RVMs, but disappointed at some of the perceived shortcomings.

“First and foremost, in response to support from both brands and consumers, it is pleasing the English, Welsh and Northern Irish governments are open to pursuing a different path from Scotland, which has been tormented by concessions, delays and industry-wide criticism. A hybrid model will reduce the number of RVMs, thereby addressing directly many retailers’ concerns regarding costs and retail space, while increasing the number of return points, convenience and ease with which to recycle.

“That said, it is disappointing it has been argued the technology required to change the labelling of containers to facilitate a DDRS is not currently possible. Our partnership with Ocado Retail, in which we printed over 1.6 million unique-every-time QR codes onto the retailers’ milk bottles, proved unequivocally that households would be able to redeem their deposits from home, a key component of a DDRS.”

She added: “We were equally frustrated that concerns over a digital model were raised regarding set-up and ongoing costs pertaining to increased fraud. Unique-every-time QR codes are in fact proven to reduce fraud and theft by preventing the multiple redemption of deposits by individual actors, a risk that persists with the RVM model.

“In spite of this, we are confident that a DDRS will be included in the October 2025 roll out. It is clear consumers want to do the right thing when it comes to recycling, and a convenient digital model, that enables them to build on their current recycling habits and understanding of QR codes and smartphones, is best placed to support them with their intentions. We are looking forward to working closely with the government to assuage the doubts expressed in this response, by continuing to demonstrate, alongside major brands and retailers, the technology is already at our fingertips, and that a DDRS is a reality.”

The Marine Conservation Society said in a blog: “We welcome the UK and Welsh governments’ announcements; however, we do have concerns about the proposed schemes in terms of timing, inconsistency between UK nations, and primarily, in England’s decision to not include glass.

“This is a long-awaited announcement and there have already been delays in reaching this stage. The consultation on DRS for England, Wales and Northern Ireland took place two years ago – two years after the UK government promised to introduce one.”

It added: “To be fully effective, glass must be included in deposit return schemes, yet only Scotland and Wales’s will. As almost half of households in Scotland do not have access to kerbside glass recycling, including glass in its DRS will prevent countless glass containers going unnecessarily to landfill, and make recycling them more convenient for consumers.”

Surfers Against Sewage said in a blog: “Finally, movement on the DRS scheme! But there’s a long road ahead.

“And whilst we should (and do!) celebrate action being taken against the scourge of plastic pollution, this much-delayed announcement on DRS appears to be a huge missed opportunity. Today’s Defra announcement has revealed underwhelming and disappointing plans for the DRS as the government has rolled back on its 2019 manifesto commitment to include glass. Yet another broken promise. It puts England at odds with systems being introduced in Scotland and Wales, hindering UK-wide compatibility. The production of glass is highly intensive and is the most carbon-heavy of all container materials. It’s also infinitely recyclable, unlike plastic.”

It added: “The glass production industry will be delighted with this news. Another case of profit before people and the planet. Not to mention, delaying the introduction of a DRS to at least 2025 will see the potential for an additional 24 billion containers slipping into the environment, choking our rivers and seas. We demand greater ambition from the government. There’s no place for dawdling.”

Catherine Gee, Keep Scotland Beautiful deputy CEO, said: “In an ideal world we would want to see an all-in deposit return scheme introduced across the whole of the UK at the same time. A scheme that accepts the same material types makes it easy for people to understand and use, and clearer for businesses to support the implementation.

“However, we recognise the differences between the devolved nations and welcome the positive environmental impact that the introduction of a DRS will have. From litter data that we gather through our national auditing programme, we know that drinks related litter was recorded on more than 40% of sites surveyed last year, so a deposit return on bottles and cans will no doubt make a difference to the number of these items that are littered.”

She added: “But we also recognise that there is a need to focus on those items of litter not included, and on the increase, such as cigarette litter and single use vapes, and soft plastics used to make crisp packets and sweet wrappers. We look forward to supporting the roll out of the DRS in Scotland with both data monitoring and public engagement and will work with our partners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to call for a consistent system across the UK.”

Keep Britain Tidy’s CEO Allison Ogden-Newton said: “After a long wait, we welcome the government unveiling their plans for a deposit return scheme.

“Getting plastic bottles and aluminium cans off the ground is a real step forward, but I believe that excluding glass at this time is a tragically missed opportunity. We are incredibly disappointed that glass, one of the most dangerous forms of litter for people, pets and wildlife, has been excluded. But it’s not too late and we continue to urge the government to think again, to line up alongside Scotland and to introduce a truly comprehensive scheme for the sake of the environment.”

Truls Haug, managing director of Tomra Collection UK & Ireland, said: “We are delighted that the plans including a target start date for a deposit return scheme across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have been announced by the minister as October 2025.

“This ambitious, wide-ranging DRS will follow a similar scheme in Scotland which is going live on 16 August this year. This will place the UK at the forefront of the circular economy. At a time when the world is changing in many ways, it is important that we continue to take steps to safeguard the planet for the future.”

He added: “We look forward to working with all parties to help ensure a successful launch. Tomra is already partnering with a number of retailers in Scotland as they get ready for the go-live date. In the current climate, the confirmation of a timeline will give retailers, producers, and the public sufficient time to prepare. The UK will then truly be doing its part to help turn off the tap to drinks container pollution.”

Megan Randles, political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Five years ago, Greenpeace was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with campaigning groups across the country calling for a deposit return scheme.

“Five years of wasted action on plastic waste. Five years of dithering and pollution. Five years of lobbying and watering down. This could have been a moment for celebration, and of course for our environment it’s better to have this proposed system rather than nothing. But even at the final hurdle, this government bottled it and excluded glass from the scheme. In what kind of world is collecting glass drinks containers not an essential part of a system designed to collect drinks containers?”

She added: “To be honest it reeks of corporate lobbying – from the kind of companies who talk big on social responsibility, but do everything they can to push the problems they create onto others. If we’re serious about leaving a better natural environment for future generations, kicking the can down the road just doesn’t cut it.”

[Image credit: Sainsbury’s]

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