Coca-Cola has now agreed to suport a trial bottle deposit return scheme

Coca-Cola is to swing its weight behind controversial plans for a bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) in the UK having been the focus of attacks by campaign groups and the media for spearheading opposition to the idea.

The Grocer can reveal the soft drinks giant has decided it is best to explore plans for a DRS system alongside the under-fire kerbside recycling system, as the industry awaits confirmation about the plans by the UK and Scottish governments to tackle plastic waste.

It comes less than a month after the company was at the centre of controversy over leaked documents which claimed Coca-Cola was mustering industry opposition to DRS schemes, in a bid to persuade ministers not to press ahead.

However, speaking exclusively to The Grocer, Leendert Den Hollander, vice president and general manager at Coca-Cola European Partners, said it was now willing to support a trial of such a scheme in the UK, providing it was not carried out in isolation.

“We welcome the fact that consumers are increasingly questioning the environmental impact of the packaging used by our industry,” said Den Hollander. “It’s a really important debate.

“Recycling rates have stalled in many parts of the country and we think it’s time to update the existing producer responsibility obligations as we look to improve the current approach,” he added.

“Understandably, there is also a growing interest in exploring the role that could be played by introducing a deposit return scheme in this country on drinks packaging. We have supported the introduction of such schemes in other countries in Europe. The key is that this cannot be implemented in isolation – it must work for all parties across the value chain and be rooted into an overall strategy on the circular economy. Despite the complexity, we are willing to support the trial of a well-designed deposit return scheme to understand the role it could play to increase packaging recycling and reducing litter. “

Coca-Cola’s change in stance comes just weeks after the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) warned opening up the new front in the war on plastic, an idea backed by an unlikely alliance of sources including The Daily Mail, Sky TV, Greenpeace and Prince Charles, would heap huge new costs on the industry.

The BSDA estimated  DRS could add £1.40 a week onto the cost of consumers’ daily milk  and add £1.20 to the cost of a six-pack of beer, as well as piling extra costs on retailers and consumers.

Opponents have also warned the system could drain money from local authority collection schemes, already feeling the strain from budget cuts across the UK.

However, DRS supporters claim as many as 16 million plastic bottles go unrecycled in the UK every day and say it is time for governments and businesses to act to protect the planet.

Last month Sky News revealed Coca-Cola had drawn up as so-called “risk matrix” targeting EU deposit schemes for an industry “fightback.”

Meanwhile a Greenpeace investigation claimed Coca-Cola had been lobbying Scottish ministers for years against its plans for DRS.

The move comes with the Defra boss Andrea Leadsom poised to launch an overdue new litter strategy and north of the border ministers preparing to launch new circular economy proposals, which campaigners want DRS to be part of.

An industry source told The Grocer Coca-Cola’s move came following talks within the newly merged CCEP group, which started at the end of last year.

Coca-Cola is due to publish the result of a consultation it has been carrying out with experts and policymakers on how to revamp policies on packaging and recycling, in the summer.

The source said: “Critically, Coca-Cola is looking at what more could be done to increase recycling rates which, for one reason or another have stalled. It is now looking at whether it needs to look to deposit return schemes and how it can take a leadership position on this issue.”