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Back to the future for bottle recycling

Issues

Dominic Salmon28 April 2020

In New Zealand, we use about 2.3 billion beverage containers each year and it’s reported only 40% get recycled – staggering, I know.

The remainder end up in our landfills and all too often our gutters, rivers, marine and wider environment. An environmental crime, not least for the waste of infinitely recyclable material, like glass and aluminium.

While both Napier City and Hastings District councils are providing improved kerbside recycling collections in order to increase the capture and recycling of beverage materials, there’s also a Government-led conversation charging ahead regarding a Container Return Scheme (CRS).

What’s that you might ask?

Do you remember the ‘good old days’ when you could take your empty beverage container back to the dairy and get a few cents for it? For readers old enough to remember, this will no doubt generate nostalgia around buying lollies with the refund.

Momentum for a beverage CRS has been building over the past few years, particularly as a way of combatting plastic pollution. And, it seems like a scheme will be put in place in the near future, with Government announcing in September 2019 work was underway to design a CRS for New Zealand.

How it works

You buy a beverage, which has a deposit built into the cost. When you are finished with it you take the empty container to a recycling depot (in some countries they use reverse vending machines) where you get your deposit back. You can also put the container in your kerbside recycling or give it to a community group, in which case those parties can claim the deposit.

What the deposit will be is yet to be decided, but in other countries it ranges anywhere from 10c to 30c – not insignificant considering the vast number of beverage containers Kiwis get through annually. It’s also a tangible reflection of the true cost of properly dealing with those containers at the end of their often very short life.

As you can see, a CRS offers an incentive to keep recyclable material out of landfills and the environment and makes it available to be recycled. This in turn promotes a circular economy – where resources are kept in use as long as possible.

One of the major upsides – in terms of collection – is it separates the containers before they are collected, reducing the chance of contaminating other recyclable material like paper and cardboard.

It’s important to distinguish the deposit from a tax. It is not a tax as the money is used to run the scheme and doesn’t flow to Government coffers.

While the scheme is still in the design phase, an announcement by Associate Minister for the Environment is expected mid-year. Should a CRS be approved, this will put New Zealand on the same footing as Australia and a growing list of countries where the beverage industry plays a more active role in improving recycling.

Key Issues

Evidence shows that not all the deposits will be redeemed and there will invariably be some loss through containers going to landfill or being littered. The deposits – both those which are redeemed and those which are not – stay within the scheme and are used to run it.

Actually recycling the material which is collected is the next critical step and there is need for New Zealand to increase processing and manufacturing capacity. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. However, an increase in the volume of available recyclable material from a CRS may well give investors in processing and manufacture greater certainty.

There are a number of challenges facing the design of a CRS, including the impact on existing kerbside recycling services, and what materials should be included. For example, some Australian states exclude dairy and wine containers.

The Glass Packaging Forum runs an effective voluntary product stewardship scheme in New Zealand, capturing 73% of glass going to market. This system accepts glass beverage containers as well as bottles and jars used for products like condiments and preserves, while a CRS will only accept glass beverage containers. If glass is included in a CRS then consumers will have to separate their beverage containers (with their built-in deposit) from their other glass containers (which wouldn’t have a built-in deposit).

You can see how there will be some confusion and potentially loss of recyclable material as a result. At a time when we want recycling to be as easy as possible, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible.

The future

If a CRS is designed to suit New Zealand needs and complements current collection and recycling systems, then it is bound to be an excellent way of seriously reducing littering and landfill volume, and loss of recyclable material.

Other countries such as Norway and Australia have shown drastic increases in recycling rates and reduction in beverage container littering as a result of a CRS, and I’m confident the same can be achieved in Aotearoa.

Dom works on sustainable solutions at 3R Group. 3R design, implement and manage product stewardship schemes for individual businesses or industry-wide groups.

Dominic Salmon28 April 2020

3 responses to “Back to the future for bottle recycling”

  1. Cecile says:

    In the Netherlands you take your empty bottles to the supermarket where you put it in a machine and it calculates how much they are worth. It then prints a receipt to take to the checkout where they deduct the amount from your bill. Very easy and clean. Outside they have recycling bins for other glass that hasn’t got deposits on it.

  2. Dan Elderkamp says:

    Agree with a CRS 100% – can’t come soon enough. I’ve been using my morning walks with the dog as an opportunity to pick up litter alongside the road and in roadside ditches, and it’s staggering how much of the litter is actually recyclable. Most are discarded glass beer bottles, fizzy drink and beer cans and RTD glass bottles. We’d need an education campaign to run alongside the scheme as well. As for containers that miss the scheme because of being biffed out the car window, well, people like me will benefit from picking those up and claiming the deposit back! I do think, however, that a CRS scheme should incorporate other containers as well, such as milk and sauce bottles, etc, to try and capture the maximum possible quantity for recycling. Aside from this scheme, the government could limit imports of virgin materials for new containers, legislating for a minimum percentage of recycled raw material. It could also limit the number of types of plastics used (as in Norway) to ensure a higher proportion of containers being made from recyclable materials, or otherwise if not recyclable, then a container must be compostable or biodegradable.

  3. Ava says:

    When I was a kid there was a bottle drive every few months by the Scouts, mostly, but I think other organisations did it too. Everyone saved their bottles for the bottle drive, and the Scouts picked them up to redeem the deposit – seemed like such a sensible idea, and no one disputed to extra cost so the built in cost of the deposit. I am all for paying extra in order to ensure more product is recycled, especially plastic.

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