78914011_Ocado British Semi Skimmed Milk 4 Pints 2.272L - PACK (1)

Ocado has announced a ‘world first’ trial of a technology that could underpin a digital deposit return scheme (DDRS), in what it claims could prove a ‘breakthrough moment’ in how online retailers tackle single-use plastic.

For the first time, on-pack technology will be introduced to product packaging for one of the UK’s leading online grocery retailers.

The move comes with the industry and campaign groups waiting for the UK government to set out its plans for DRS, including what part a digital solution might play.

Ocado Retail has partnered with Wales-based DDRS pioneer Polytag for the three-month trial, which will see 1.6 million of the retailer’s fully recyclable milk bottles feature ‘unique-every-time’ QR codes which households can scan with their smartphones to receive detailed recycling information.

Although milk bottles are not included in the scope of DRS plans in the UK, because they are so widely included in kerbside collections, Ocado said the aim was to prove that a DDRS with unique tags was viable by using a popular product.

The trial will not involve deposits or rewards.

DDRS exponents believe the technology could work alongside the rollout of a more traditional deposit return scheme, involving reverse vending machines (RVMs) in retail stores in a hybrid system.

Ocado also flagged research by consultants Resource Futures claiming an ‘all in’ DDRS system could save governments £3.4bn over 11 years by eliminating the need for a network of RVMs.

DDRS depends on unique-every-time QR codes applied to every item of packaging before it is available for purchase. Rather than having to redeem their deposit in-store, once an item is used, households can use their smartphones to scan the code and discard the item in their existing recycling bin, and redeem a deposit into their mobile wallet.

However, the technology has faced substantial technical barriers. A separate trial in Wales, involving several major supermarkets, has been shelved until the new year.

Ocado said it hoped governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would take the trial into account in their bid to reverse the UK’s stagnating recycling rates.

Ministers in Scotland have resisted including a digital solution in the rollout of the first DRS system in the UK from August 2023.

The Grocer recently revealed how the Scottish government had dramatically reduced the number of retailers due to take part in its scheme because of fears over the costs of the DRS infrastructure.

It is also widely expected to announce it will allow many online-only retailers to opt out of the scheme.

“As the world’s largest online supermarket, we champion the use of innovative technology as we strive to become the UK’s most sustainable grocery retailer,” said Laura Fernandez, Ocado Retail senior packaging and sustainability manager.

“Polytag’s digital platform offers plenty of environmental and economic benefits for retailers and customers alike – it’s easy to use and when used at scale, could have a hugely positive impact on the nation’s deposit return scheme. We’re looking forward to seeing how our customers respond to the trial and how many would redeem their deposit at home.”

Polytag CEO Alice Rackley said “This world-first trial has game-changing implications for recycling in this country. A successful trial, supported by the world’s largest online-only supermarket Ocado Retail, will be a significant step towards the implementation of a DDRS in this country that will provide a much more convenient and environmentally-friendly way for households to recover their deposits.

“Not only that, but brands will also be presented with radical new marketing tools and a wealth of data on how consumers are recycling their products.”

Jayne Paramor, strategic technical manager, at Wrap, said: “Ocado Retail is establishing vital partnerships with fellow UK Plastics Pact members and wider industry, to lead this important work on DDRS to expand understanding of how we can improve our recycling. We need to focus our attention on positive, impactful changes and look forward to seeing the outcomes of the trial.”