Scotland’s Bottle Return Scheme Moves Forward – Despite Trade Opposition

The northernmost part of the UK is planning to bring in a return scheme for bottles and cans this summer to improve its poor recycling rates. Many in the British drinks industry would prefer it not to. 

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Scotsmen recycling bottles (Image: Dalle-E)
Scotsmen recycling bottles (Image: Dalle-E)

Midnight on Tuesday 28th February marked the deadline for drinks producers to register for the Scottish government’s plastic and glass bottle and aluminium can Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), due to come into force on August 16th. According to the government, 664 companies producing or distributing some 26,000 products have signed up to a scheme that will oblige consumers to pay a £0.20 deposit on every bottle or can they buy. This will be refunded when the item goes into one of 17,000 recycling points that are now being installed across this devolved part of the United Kingdom.

Scotland, as a 2021 report by the Scotsman newspaper revealed, has a poorer record of recycling than other UK regions. In 2020, only 42% of household rubbish was recycled, nearly 3% less than in 2019. Scotland’s glass recycling rate is rather better – at 67% - but still lower than the 74% recorded for the UK as a whole.

Collectively, the businesses that have registered represent 95% of the beverages sold in single-use packaging in Scotland, all of which might make it seem as though the scheme is set to succeed.

Formidable opposition

The 3,350 or so producers whose products are sold in Scotland and who have not signed up to the scheme are not happy, however. And nor is the UK Wine & Spirit Trade Association which is concerned about it being introduced in the UK as a whole.

The WSTA says that “People who struggle to travel, such as the disabled, single parents, elderly or those who rely on  home deliveries will have to change their routines to redeem every 20p deposit. It also raises the environmental impact of the energy required for the recycling points and the increased road travel and congestion, for consumers seeking to redeem their deposits and waste collectors needing to drive across communities to collect materials from return points.”

Retailers will suffer, the WSTA claims, because of the handling and storage costs. The DRS will, it says, “distort the retail market and some retailers will not cope.”

Leave out the glass

A particular concern for the association is the inclusion of glass in the scheme. “The UK produces some of the most renowned spirits brands and is the world’s largest exporter of spirits. Clear glass (known as flint) is in high demand for this industry. Representatives of the glass industry worry that moving away from kerbside collections will reduce the purity of flint cullet collections… More worrying still, in countries that introduced DRS, there were glass factory closures as demand for the material declined due to substitution towards plastic and other materials.”

Besides, the WSTA argues “The top 4 glass recycling nations in Europe do not have a DRS. Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Sweden do not operate a recycling DRS for glass, but instead use a simpler [Extended Producer Responsibility- EPR] scheme to cover all glass packaging.”

Summing up, the WSTA says that DRS will be “an extremely unwelcome and unnecessary additional burden for British consumers and businesses.” It acknowledges the “need to recycle and reuse more of our packaging” and for  “recycling solutions that are cost effective, egalitarian and evidence based” but states that “the DRS proposed in Scotland and the UK is none of these.”

So far, the Scottish government seems to be unmoved by the WSTA efforts, by a petition by 500 companies for the scheme to be delayed, or by the decision by major Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn not to take part.


Alternative packaging in the wine industry promotes climate benefits. What possibilities are there to replace the emission-intensive disposable glass? Vincent Messmer reports.

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London could act

Another hurdle for the scheme is the possibility of UK PM, Rishi Sunak exercising his right to block its introduction in Scotland, at least in the short term. He could do this by refusing to give Scotland an opt-out from the UK's Internal Markets Act that was brought in after Brexit. Without the opt-out, the Scottish government could not impose the DRS on single-use cans and bottles imported from other parts of the UK.

Scotland is about to appoint a new first minister to replace Nicola Sturgeon who announced her resignation in January. DRS will be a headache for whichever of the candidates takes her place. As will Scotland’s generally performance when it comes to recycling.




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