The UK looks likely to adopt a Norwegian deposit-based system that refunds consumers who recycle their plastic bottles. A delegation of British ministers has recently visited the country, where government advisers say the scheme has massively reduced plastic litter in the environment and seas.
Norway recycles 97% of plastic bottles, double what the UK currently manages to recycle. In the UK over 35.8 million bottles are consumed every day, with 16 million of these failing to reach plastic recycling facilities.
The problem has worsened since the beginning of the year after China stopped accepting foreign waste. In recent years, China has taken 500,000 tons of plastic from the UK a year.
The Norwegian solution is believed to be one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways of reducing plastic waste. The method is very similar to glass bottle deposit systems that used to function across Europe, including in Britain. As plastic bottles became increasingly common, many countries stopped the deposit system, but in Norway it was transferred to plastic bottles.
The Norwegian government decided that the best method would be to put a tax on every bottle that’s not recycled – then leave the operating details of the scheme up to business. Basically, the consumer pays a deposit on every bottle. A charge of 1 Norwegian Kroner (9p) is applied to each standard 500ml bottle, and a 2.5 Kroner deposit (23p) for larger bottles.
They return it empty and post it into a machine which reads the barcode and produces a coupon for the deposit. If the careless consumer has left liquid in the bottle, the machine eats it anyway – but hands the deposit to the shopkeeper who’ll need to empty the bottle.
Similar schemes are in operation in other Nordic nations, such as Germany, and some states in the US and Canada. The managers of the Norway operation say it could easily be applied to the UK.
In Norway, the deposit-return machine accepts only two types of plastic bottle, with approved labels and even approved glue to fix the labels. This allows the labels to be stripped easily, and simplifies recycling.
Kjell Olav Maldum, chief executive of Infinitum, which runs the Norway bottle scheme, told BBC News: “There are other recycling schemes, but we believe ours is the most cost-efficient.
“We think it could be copied in the UK – or anywhere. Our principle is that if drinks firms can get bottles to shops to sell their products, they can also collect those same bottles.”
Scotland has already committed to a deposit return scheme, without details so far. But politicians in Westminster have been more cautious amid lobbying by drinks manufacturers and fears from small shops about the administrative burden.
In Norway, small shopkeepers are said to generally favour the deposit return system. They get paid a small fee for each bottle, and are also said to benefit from increased footfall from people returning bottles.
Sajana Pariyar, who works at the Joker minimarket in central Oslo said: “It’s a good thing. People return the bottle and with the money they get from it they buy things from us. It increases the number of people in our shops. It’s good for business.”
Some schools have now installed bottle collecting racks at the school gates to avoid plastic bottles going into general rubbish bins.
The most virtuous consumers are older beer drinkers who can stash their cans at home before returning them later. Just 3% of Norway’s plastic bottles elude the deposit return scheme, but even so the absolute numbers are still very high!
So, what is the rest of Europe waiting for? It’s time to follow the Scandinavian method!