Lorna Slater, Circular economy minister

Yesterday Slater told MSPs the DRS scheme was still on track

The Scottish government yesterday insisted its deposit return scheme was still on track for launch on 16 August, despite being warned in crisis talks with industry bosses that it was heading for chaos.

The Grocer understands ministers held emergency negotiations with business leaders amid “astonishment” over suggestions thousands of smaller producers would be allowed to opt out of the scheme for at least the first year.

Senior industry sources described the proposals, mooted by circularity minister Lorna Slater over the weekend, just two days before the deadline for producers to sign up to the scheme, as “utter madness”.

Yesterday Slater told MSPs the DRS scheme was still on track, after administrator Circularity Scotland (CSL) revealed on Tuesday that more than 650 large companies and SMEs had signed up to the scheme, accounting for 95% of the annual volume of sales in Scotland – the equivalent of more than two billion containers.

However, it is understood more than 3,000 smaller producers have still to sign up to the scheme.

Slater insisted that despite the deadline passing, it was still not too late for producers to sign up and announced the next stage of the rollout would now begin, to sign up retailers to take part in the scheme.

However, she also repeated the suggestion that smaller producers could receive a “stay of grace”.

Thousands of smaller retailers have already been told they wil be able to opt out of DRS altogether.

A senior drinks industry source told The Grocer the idea of allowing small producers to avoid paying deposits “drove a coach a horses” through the fairness of the scheme.

“There is just no way I can think of that it could work,” they added. “Imagine if you were a mid-sized craft beer company with three or four SKUs. So are we saying that its products would sit on the shelves, exempt from deposits, whilst a supermarket own brand product and a craft beer from a major brewery sit alongside with deposits having to be paid.

“That is just never going to happen. For a start it can’t possibly be legal and if it did happen the products would end up being delisted.

“Producers who have bothered to put in the preparation and groundwork for this launch were frankly staggered at how it’s being handled.

“We have been warning for years that there would be problems with the rollout, for example with having thousands of collection points, with including glass. But Scottish ministers seem to be realising with two days to go before sign-up and making up policies on the hoof.”

Uncertainty over DRS has grown even greater with all three of the SNP leadership candidates vying to replace Nicola Sturgeon saying they would either delay the rollout or scrap it altogether. Finance secretary Kate Forbes warned on a brewery visit in the Highlands that the scheme risked causing “economic carnage”.

Meanwhile, The Grocer understands Scottish ministers will meet their UK counterparts next week amid a threat from Westminster to block the scheme under internal market rules, amid claims it will cause a fresh spike in inflation.

“Retailers are straining every sinew to prepare their businesses for the August 16 launch, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe the scheme can land well with customers in August,” said Ewan MacDonald-Russell, deputy head of the Scottish Retail Consortium.

However, CSL CEO David Harris described signing up 650 producers as a “fantastic start”.

“We’ve never underestimated the challenge of delivering a scheme which requires the support of so many Scottish businesses,” he said. “They will all be helping us to reach the goal of recycling billions of PET plastic, glass and metal drinks containers a year. We’re now well on the way to achieving that vital ambition.

“I would encourage those producers who have begun their registration to complete it as soon as possible and can assure those producers who have yet to sign up, that we have people on hand to support them through the process.”