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UK proposes deposit-return program to tackle plastic pollution

Prices for beverages in glass, plastic or metal containers may go up slightly in the UK if a deposit-return program i...

Posted: Mar. 28, 2018 1:59 PM
Updated: Mar. 28, 2018 1:59 PM

Prices for beverages in glass, plastic or metal containers may go up slightly in the UK if a deposit-return program is put in place, but consumers will get cash back if they recycle them.

It's an effort to reduce the amount of waste littering land and seas. Globally, plastic bottles make up a third of marine litter, adding to the 5 trillion pieces of plastic already polluting the oceans.

Last week, the UK government released a report warning that without intervention, the amount of plastic swirling in the world's oceans is expected to triple within a decade.

Of the estimated 13 billion plastic bottles used in the UK each year, 5.5 billion escape household recycling collection.

"We can be in no doubt that plastic is wreaking havoc on our marine environment -- killing dolphins, choking turtles and degrading our most precious habitats," UK environment secretary Michael Gove said in a statement.

"It is absolutely vital we act now to tackle this threat and curb the millions of plastic bottles a day that go unrecycled."

Incentive to recycle?

Similar deposit-return systems operate in a number of countries including Sweden, Germany, Finland and parts of the United States.

While it has not been disclosed how much the refundable deposit will be in the UK, consumers in other parts of the world pay approximately $0.10 to $0.50.

Businesses are then responsible for ensuring returned containers are effectively recycled -- a move the UK government says has led to a 97% recycling rate in Germany.

Deposit-return schemes around the world sometimes use "reverse vending machines" as collection points for drinks containers.

Returpack, the primary deposit organization in Sweden, cites a recycling rate of 85% for both PET bottles and aluminum cans.

In Finland, the largest deposit-refund system operator -- Suomen Palautuspakkaus Oy -- achieved return rates from 89% to 95% for beverage packaging in 2015.

South Australia's container deposit scheme sees an overall return rate of 80%.

Related: How our throwaway culture is turning the sea into a graveyard

Is recycling plastic enough?

The UK's proposed deposit-return scheme is subject to a consultation this year to take into account views from producers, suppliers and consumers.

Last year, The UK's Association of Convenience Stores raised concerns about the impact that a deposit-return program would have on the convenience sector, saying it would increase the time customers wait to pay, pose health and safety risks for staff, and reduce the amount of space available in stores.

Charitable organization Surfers Against Sewage has been campaigning for a UK-wide deposit-return system for the last 18 months.

In September 2017 it delivered a petition to Downing Street with 329,000 signatures.

"This huge victory for our oceans will stop millions of plastic bottles escaping into the environment annually, and stem the tidal wave of plastics swamping our coastlines," said Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage.

Greenpeace UK said the government consultation is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to curb production of plastic.

"Deposit-return schemes are a great way to capture the vast majority of plastic bottles before they end up littering our countryside or polluting our oceans. But we also need to tackle the flow of plastic waste at the source," Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner Elena Polisano told CNN.

"We're churning out more single-use plastic than our recycling system can cope with and are then forced to bury it, burn it, or ship it off abroad. This isn't sustainable. As well as trying to change consumers' behavior, the UK government should also put pressure on producers and sellers to change theirs.

"This means finding incentives for companies to produce and sell less throwaway plastic and look at alternative solutions. Action both upstream and downstream is key to stopping plastic waste polluting our oceans."

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