It is somewhat ironic to note that as Scotland ponders the feasibility of introducing a national deposit scheme for drinks packaging, the country’s best-loved soft drink, Irn-Bru, is preparing to wind down its glass bottle return scheme after 110 years.
Irn-Bru maker AG Barr currently offers a 30p reward for all glass bottle returns, but convenience now outweighs cost for consumers. After 31 December 2015, the scheme will end. Back in the early 1990s, AG Barr was achieving return rates of up to 90% for glass bottles, but this figure has since fallen to less than 50%.
The rise of doorstep recycling has seen a shift in people’s recycling behaviour, to the point where it is now proving uneconomical for AG Barr to recapture and reuse dwindling return volumes. The company has decided to invest instead in new glass filling machinery, which means it will no longer have the infrastructure in place to handle returned bottles.
“Kerbside recycling has improved significantly and as a result there has been a reduction in the number of our glass bottles being returned to retailers, as people choose the convenience of recycling at home. We now only receive just over half of our bottles back,” the company stated on its website.
Asked why the value of the deposit couldn’t be increased to encourage greater returns, AG Barr replied: “We increased the deposit from 10p to 20p and then again to 30p in 2008. There was a significant drop in our returnable glass bottle system return rates from 65% to 57% in 2012 following the introduction of glass into kerbside recycling, and returns continue to decline. We don’t believe increasing the deposit further would have a sustainable impact.”
Our behaviour is changing: we now prefer the ease of recycling at home rather than walking to the shops to pocket some spare change for our empties. On a wider level, this raises some interesting questions for Scotland’s circular economy ambition.
Without a doubt, AG Barr’s announcement is a definite blow for closed loop purists for glass collected at the kerbside will get crushed and recycled (downcycled) at best. Any prospect of reuse, or refillable packaging, has just been short circuited. Logistically, kerbside collections are fantastically effective – but where does the material ultimately end up?
When a large manufacturer decides to relinquish control of its material flows, flows that were operating in a very circular fashion, you have to wonder whether kerbside recycling has become a bottleneck (excuse the pun) for tighter circularity. There is certainly some conflict here that needs resolving if we are serious about working towards higher value recovery.
The timing of this development is undoubtably crucial for Scotland. I have it on good authority that the Scottish Government is actively considering introducing a national refundable cash deposit scheme for consumers who recycle their drinks packaging – but with a sting in the tail.
It appears that one of the systems being proposed is based on the polluter pays principle. This means that customers will pay an additional cash deposit upfront when they first purchase their drink, which is only redeemable when the empty packaging is returned to a designated collection point (such as a retailer or a reverse vending machine). Thus, those who fail to return their items will end up subsidising the infrastructure needed to make it work.
It’s quite a bold move and feasibility studies have been undertaken by Zero Waste Scotland to assess the pros and cons. Will AG Barr’s recent experience change thinking at all? Consumers appear now to be ‘locked-in’ to certain recycling patterns, where convenience is king. For circular economists, time-saver recycling could be the new nut they need to crack.