There are fewer than 300 days before the UK’s first deposit return scheme is due to go live north of the border.

With consumer research by GS1 showing barely a quarter of households know what the scheme is, fears have been growing that the launch could be heading for chaos, with many businesses equally unprepared and concerns rising over the costs to the industry at a time of economic crisis.

It’s against this backdrop that the Scottish government – the scheme’s pioneer – has announced thousands of smaller retailers will be able to opt out of the scheme. This will have massive implications for DRS not just in Scotland, but the rest of the UK too.

It is a huge departure from the previous plans, with the latest guidance resulting in as many as 20,000 fewer return points and reverse vending machines in Scotland alone, insiders believe.

It seems unthinkable the Westminster government will insist on a scheme that covers more retailers than the SNP/Green government version. It’s similarly unlikely in Wales, where ministers have been trialling a potential digital alternative because of fears over the impact on local authority kerbside collections.

In effect, as one industry source puts it, DRS looks increasingly like a strategy only for the largest retailers.

There are likely to be further exemptions, too. Green minister Lorna Slater, who has become the face of DRS in Scotland, has indicated the government will soon make further announcements regarding another of the huge problems facing the rollout: what to do with the millions of bottles purchased from online retailers.

It appears highly likely that in this case too, smaller retailers, many of whom created a lifeline for themselves by starting online deliveries during the pandemic, will be able to opt out.

The moves have been welcomed by several trade groups as well as Circularity Scotland, the body of retailers and suppliers running the scheme.

One source hails the latest changes as a breakthrough for common sense. “We’ve been desperately trying to talk the government around to a pragmatic approach,” they say. “With so little time before the rollout, it cannot be allowed to descend into chaos. We really hope that the other governments across the UK will also allow pragmatism to win the day.”

In theory, the move ought to be welcomed too by smaller retailers, who have been up in arms about the projected cost of DRS and what they claim are insufficient handling fees. Yet they may not be quite so pleased if thousands of smaller retailers end up being cut out of the recycling loop.

In the long run, tens of thousands of c-stores risk seeing their footfall hoovered up even more by the big out-of-town supermarkets, which will offer consumers the reverse vending machines and return points they don’t. And as the industry giants tighten their grip on the running of the scheme, the voice of smaller retailers is going to be increasingly hard to hear.