The industry derided Bill Bryson’s call to bring back a bottle deposit scheme, but does it have better alternatives to boost recycling, asks Nick Hughes

In his popular book, The Short History of Nearly Everything, author Bill Bryson's achievement was to explain complex scientific phenomena in a language that was simple and accessible. As a green campaigner, however, Bryson's ­reductions may have been just a little too simplistic.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), of which Bryson is president, called last week for the introduction of a UK-wide bottle deposit scheme, promising that for an up-front cost of £84m, such a scheme would dramatically improve recycling rates, reduce litter, restore community spirit and save the country almost £1.5bn.

The CPRE based its calculations on costings prepared by the Eunomia consultancy. Charging a deposit on PET bottles, glass bottles and aluminium and steel cans of between 15p and 30p (depending on size), the scheme would cost £700m a year to run, which would be accounted for in the main by unclaimed deposits, which would generate £491m in revenues, while the surplus estimated at £212m would be covered by an administrative fee of around 0.7p per bottle to be levied on drinks suppliers.

Retailers, meanwhile, would be compensated for handling and storage costs of returned bottles through a share of a £576m pot.

But industry bodies such as the BRC, ACS and Incpen claim the deposit scheme would cost far more to administer, undermining both the economics of the proposal and current kerbside collections due to a reduction in the revenue councils receive for the sale of recycled materials.

"We've just lost the Sustainable Development Commission at £40m a year so to talk about introducing a recycling scheme that costs £700m a year to run is nuts," says BRC head of environment Bob Gordon.

And packaging and waste consultants Perchards calculates that set-up costs would be closer to £450m. And it argues that the report also overestimates the impact on litter.

"The Campaign to Protect Rural England is right to challenge Britons not to accept the amount of litter we see around us today," says managing director David Perchard. "But by deciding on the policy instrument first and then trying to justify it, CPRE has locked the debate into an unending cycle of tit-for-tat papers and statements about the desirability or otherwise of a [deposit return scheme], which would affect just one component of litter, rather than considering what can and should be done about litter and littering as a whole." 

Experts also fear the extra charge levied on drinks suppliers would be passed straight through to shoppers. "If the levy applies to everyone there'll be no competitive advantage so people will pass it on down the chain," says Andrew Kuyk, the FDF's director of sustainability. "At the end of the day that cost is going to go back to the consumer."

The CPRE has hit back, however, countering that current kerbside schemes clearly do not work; an ­argument given weight by the latest EU statistics, which show the UK lagging behind its western European peers in municipal waste recycling.

In 2008, the UK recycled or composted just 35% of municipal waste, compared with 65% in Germany which has a mandatory national bottle deposit scheme. In Sweden, where consumers have paid a SEK0.5 (4p) deposit on cans and a SEK1(8p) deposit on single-use plastic bottles since 1984, the recycle rate is 87% for cans and 83% for plastic bottles, while in Denmark, which operates a similar scheme, the figure is 84% for cans and 93% for plastic bottles.

In this context, the UK recycle rate of 45% for plastic bottles and 51% for cans looks well below par.

So does the UK food and drink industry have any better ideas of its own to improve our rubbish ­recycling rates?

The industry does acknowledge there is work to be done. Simon Baldry, managing director of Coca-Cola Enterprises, admits: "Our track record doesn't stand up well against the recycling rates in Europe. A recycling revolution is needed, with the focus on the home market."

Schemes are proliferating. Coca-Cola GB has been proactive in supplementing kerbside collections. Last year it launched a 'Keep it Going. Recycle' ad campaign to support the expansion of its Recycle Zone initiative, which ­places branded recycle bins in busy locations such as shopping centres, theme parks and festivals.

Coca-Cola is also supporting the fledgling recycling incentive scheme RecycleBank by offering residents of Windsor and Maidenhead money off Coke ­products using the reward points earned through recycling ­household waste.

Another scheme is Every Can Counts, a partnership between drinks can manufacturers, the ­recycling industry and leading waste management companies.

Perhaps the most successful ­initiative is the BRC's on-pack ­recycling label, launched only 18 months ago, which is fast becoming an industry standard (see ­letters, p26).

Yet in the case of many materials, the label must state: 'Check with your local authority to see which items are collected in your local area' hardly an incentive for consumers.

And the lack of a national policy for local council recycling collection is hampering progress, Baldry believes.

"Consumers are confused by the rules, which are different from council to council," says CCE ­managing director Simon Baldry. "Many get rid of ­rubbish in the ­easiest way possible."

"Economic urgency"
The FDF believes that lobbying the coalition to introduce a national standard for kerbside collection around five key materials glass, metal, paper/cardboard, plastics and food it can transform the ­situation. "If the government can standardise collection, business and the community can benefit," says Zuyk.

In June, the new environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced a full review of waste policy in England in a speech at the Futuresource conference, at which she admitted "there is an economic and environmental urgency to developing the right waste strategy. The direction of travel is right it's the pace that's the problem."

Both the BRC and FDF will be putting the case for a national standard for kerbside collection in their submissions to the review. But Gordon notes that coalition policy to date has focused on ­removing power from central ­government and giving it to local authorities.

"The way this coalition is working is it is saying decisions should be being made at a local level. What we're suggesting is there should be assimilation."

Waste:how we stack up
(2008 EU rates of municipal waste recycled or composted)

Austria: 69%
Germany: 65%
Belgium: 60%
Netherlands: 59%
Sweden: 48%
United Kingdom: 35%