A deposit return scheme (DRS) and extended producer responsibility (EPR) have long been earmarked as the policies which will finally help reverse years of stagnating recycling rates in the UK.
Through financial recycling incentives and shifting the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products to producers, the policies were popular across multiple industries – widely recognised as a means of improving the quality of recycled materials and advancing towards a circular economy. Despite this, these landmark pieces of legislation have gone from evoking excitement and optimism amongst brands, retailers, recyclers and consumers, to a growing tide of frustration.
This reached its apex, for me at least, upon hearing the news last Thursday that the government has told the industry it is willing to reconsider its time frame for the introduction of its two flagship environmental policies, as it comes under pressure to tackle the cost of living crisis. This announcement was particularly exasperating because not only was the government hinting at more delays – a criticism being levied at them with increasing frequency and ferocity – but also because it was admitting their flagship environmental policies were simply inadequate in the current climate.
The cost of living squeeze on brands, retailers and consumers, of course, is not something that should be taken lightly. Rather, the frustration stems from the fact that many of the “complicated” issues George Eustice speaks of would practically be eliminated should the government consider the digitalised technologies staring us in the face.
By opening the door for a digital DRS (DDRS), and digital technologies in the context of EPR, there is a real possibility delays would not be needed. A key reason for this is that digital technologies have huge cost-saving potential for brands, retailers and consumers. The implementation of DDRS, which can be integrated into the UK’s existing kerbside infrastructure, negates the need for the nationwide installation of reverse vending machines. Resource Futures has predicted an all-in digital DRS would produce cost savings to the tune of £323m compared to the traditional vending machine model, reducing the need to tax it, allowing for more money in the consumer’s pocket.
These estimations don’t even account for the issues expressed in the report from the Cross-Party Group on Beer and Pubs: the potential loss of deposits associated with secure storage, theft of containers and the breakage of glass. These issues vanish with DDRS. The implementation of DDRS also has exciting implications for retailers – particularly smaller ones, who regain their precious retail space and won’t have to shoulder disproportionately large costs, including paying for the installation of reverse vending machines.
What’s more, Polytag’s ‘describe, tag and trace’ technology, which involves the application of UV-printed tags on in-scope containers – openly accessible thanks to GS1 standards – enables packaging to be handled, managed and sorted ‘post-consumption’ and tracked at each stage of the recycling stream to ensure high-value plastics are recycled in an optimal way. This affords brands and retailers unprecedented data to inform their sustainability strategy and streamline their operations, including ensuring they are accurately benchmarking their progress when it comes to EPR.
The benefits of Polytag technology were lauded by Endaf Edwards, general manager of Princes Gate, who provided the 1,500 bottles used during the first UK-wide DDRS pilot in Conwy, North Wales. Edwards stressed how the technology enabled the mineral water company to “understand the recycling habits of households” and “unlock product lifecycle information”, adding that it “can play a highly influential role in defining the future success of UK recycling”. Polytag is excited to announce that other household names are fast beginning to recognise the exciting potential of digital, with initial interest from major retailers Ocado and Co-op.
The truth is a traditional deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility are suboptimal. But when it comes to any initiative aimed at improving sustainability, we should not accept that. The last thing the government and the industry needs in this period of uncertainty and upheaval is more delays. Fortunately, thanks to a radical, transformative, future-proofed and ready-to-deploy digital solution, the UK can be a world leader in green technology and recycling.