Cheap, light and mould-able into myriad shapes, plastic bottles have conquered the world. Unfortunately, they have also become the kings of trash, accumulating at a mind-boggling rate to create one of the biggest pollution headaches or our age.
As the economic and environmental cost of this waste dawns on us, so the quest for a solution is intensifying. Deposits might allow us to keep using some plastic bottles, but stop us from tossing them mindlessly as soon as they are drained.
In November, the United Kingdom became the latest country to consider deposit-return schemes for plastic bottles. As well as ministers in London, the Scottish and Welsh regional governments are also looking at how to do it.
Campaigners predict the mooted scheme in the UK could lift the country’s 57 per cent collection rate for plastic bottles to the 80 or 90 per cent seen in other European countries.
“We must protect our oceans and marine life from plastic waste if we are to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it,” UK Environment Minister Michael Gove said recently.
The durability and low cost that make plastic so useful also make it such a voluminous and persistent pollutant. As well as littering our cities and countryside and piling up in landfills, some 8 million tons a year of plastic is leaking into our oceans. It harms hundreds of species from turtles to plankton. Plastic fragments are also entering human food chains with unknown consequences.
Reduce, re-use, recycle
Plastic bottles account for a significant component of marine litter - an estimated 1 million of them are bought around the world every minute. Turning this tide involves reducing their use and introducing more refillable bottles. But it also means collecting as many single-use bottles as possible for recycling or safe disposal.
Deposit-return schemes involve consumers paying a small extra fee (5 cents is common in the United States) every time they buy a particular type of product. They get the money back when they bring the empty containers to a collection point (often a “reverse vending machine” positioned in a supermarket). Similar systems for glass bottles have been in place for decades.
Such schemes are a way for countries with already sound waste management to further improve their collection and segregation rates so that more resources – including plastics – are re-used or recycled.
“They can do this by guaranteeing the collection of very high quality material,” says Mauro Anastasio of the European Environmental Bureau, a network of 140 organizations pressing for greener policies across the continent.
This allows used bottles to be profitably recycled into new ones, rather than a lower-grade use, exemplifying the resource-efficient “green economy” approach promoted by UN Environment to increase the sustainability of both production and consumption.
Lifting collection rates
Campaigners predict the mooted scheme in the UK could lift the country’s 57 per cent collection rate for plastic bottles to the 80 or 90 per cent seen in other European countries such as Germany and Sweden, where the packaging already carries a deposit.
Proponents say it can also cut the cost to municipalities – and ultimately taxpayers – of collecting, separating and disposing of unwanted containers. An anti-littering group has estimated that the mooted deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles in England could save local councils up to 35 million pounds ($45 million) a year.
“There are other countries and regions, in Europe and beyond, that could reach the same impressive results,” said Claudia Giacovelli of UN Environment’s International Environmental Technology Centre.
Not everyone is convinced.
Drinks manufacturers have long resisted deposit-return schemes (though Coca-Cola has recently swung behind the new initiatives in the UK). Some opponents have likened the deposits to a tax; others argue that it would be more cost-effective to boost existing, broader civic education and recycling programmes that cover more kinds of waste.
“Deposits could help recycling to really take off and reduce the littering and dumping that scars many developing countries.”
The European Environmental Bureau contends that the construction of incinerators, which burn a stream of plastic waste to generate electricity, has weakened the case for stepped-up recycling efforts – including deposits – in countries such as France.
Still, deposit-return schemes are growing in popularity.
Estonia and Lithuania have successfully introduced schemes in recent years, and three more Australian states have announced plans to follow suit. Most Canadian provinces and a number of US states also have schemes.
Not only for the wealthy
There is also potential in poorer regions.
In low-income countries, although plastic waste is growing along with living standards and population, 40-60 per cent of waste is organic. Moreover, as much as 60 per cent of waste is uncollected, and much of it is illegally dumped or burned. Landfills are often open and unmanaged heaps of trash.
Consequently, the top priority in these countries is strengthening collection, separating out organic materials for composting, and building secure landfills that don’t leak pollutants including plastic into waterways or the ocean.
Deposit-return schemes could still play a role as part of wider efforts to reduce littering and boost recycling, though introducing them involves political and financial investments.
Government may have to introduce legislation and educate the public about the impacts of waste and the benefits of reducing it. It might need to help create industries that can process and use the recovered materials. Retailers would likely have to set up systems to pay back deposits as well as to sort and store bottles.
Such a step-change takes time. However, deposits could significantly strengthen the incentive for consumers and waste collectors – both formal and informal – to diligently separate out and return bottles.
“Deposits could help recycling to really take off and reduce the littering and dumping that scars many developing countries,” Giacovelli said. “Getting plastics pollution under control will benefit us all.”
UN Environment and its International Environmental Technology Centre offer assistance and technical solutions to communities seeking to reduce plastic use and increase recycling rates. Contact Claudia.Giacovelli[at]unenvironment.org.
Pollution is the theme of the 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly, which is meeting in Nairobi, Kenya from 4 to 6 December. All governments as well as individuals, businesses and other organizations are invited to make concrete commitments to #BeatPollution around the world.