Despite the new landscape of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a silver lining has emerged to soothe the anxiety and loss that our society has experienced. The slowdown of our economy has led to benefits for our air quality, with some UK cities seeing a 60% reduction in air pollution. Environmental change will no doubt be a focal point in the coming months.

To maintain this trend, we will have to look to technological solutions to increase consumers’ resource efficiency and reduce their environmental footprint as we return to a ‘new normal’.

The subject of waste is currently being addressed by the Government’s Environment Bill. The Bill was re-tabled after the 2019 General Election and is currently receiving parliamentary scrutiny. A major component of the last Government’s Waste and Resources Strategy is the establishment of a UK Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), which is a novel consumer waste return and recycling system that could be a game-changer for our country’s efforts to create a circular economy and reduce our environmental impact

A DRS is a system that rewards consumers to return and recycle drinks packaging and other containers by placing a monetary deposit upon purchase and returning these monies to the consumer when the packaging is returned. A UK scheme could incentivise consumers to independently return their waste and demonstrate the inherent value of recyclable materials, such as plastic, glass and aluminum, and ensure that waste is recovered and fed through a closed, circular loop to ensure maximum use.

Existing schemes in Europe have transformed recycling rates for example Lithuania (92%), Germany (96%), and Norway (97%) now see recycling rates for packaging above 90%. In contrast, the UK’s kerbside collection system returns and recycles a meagre 45% of our packaging (2018) and this is on the slide.

A recent impact assessment on the effectiveness of a UK DRS, conducted by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, found that our return and recycling rate could skyrocket to 85%. Many of the European schemes noted above were established in the last century. A well-thought out, digitalised UK DRS is an opportunity to establish a green circular economy.

A digital UK DRS requires the full implementation of technologies that already exist or are in the pipeline. For example, advanced reverse vending machines (ARVMs), produced by the likes of Tomra, Envipco and Diebold Nixdorf, are located in supermarkets and shopping centres and provide a point of return for consumers to recycle their packaging. ARVMs collect, scan, count and mechanically prepare recyclable containers for processing, while repaying consumers’ deposits into their debit accounts or banking apps.

Given that each returned container will contain consumer data (purchase, usage, product lifecycle), an integrated DRS can provide a treasure trove of information to store operators, drinks producers, logistics firms and policymakers. A high deposit amount would likely encourage footfall in stores and, in the process, deliver crucial data on consumption and usage to support retail and industry’s extended producer responsibility obligations that are also mandated in the Environment Bill.

Already, supermarkets rely on loyalty apps to map consumer habits and an official DRS app or an existing supermarket app could feed purchase and other data into the scheme’s database and further encourage consumers to recycle through a consumer gamification model.

There are often pitfalls that impact smaller actors in the market when technological innovations are introduced. For example, local shops have noted that ARVMs are too large for their stores and take up valuable space. A UK DRS will certainly have more issues attached to it, such as it cannibalising the revenues acquired by local authorities’ kerbside collection schemes, but it offers a solution to drive recycling rates and enhance data-driven marketing, logistics and environmental audit systems.

Once the DRS is established, we can expect 36,000 reverse vending machines to be gradually rolled out across the UK and many of these will be ARVMs. Given the valuable data produced and ease at which deposits can be refunded to consumers by the latter, deploying ARVMs should be the preferred option for retail, industry and government.

Innovation in waste recycling and reduction should be embraced now, if we are to maximize the environmental gains attained during this uncertain and difficult period and ensure our economy becomes fully circular.

Written by James Watson, Energy and Environment.

Madano’s Energy & Environment practice advises clients across the recycling technology and waste management sector, to find out how our specialists could support your business understand the impacts and opportunities of the Environment Bill please contact – [email protected].