Victoria White: We need refundable deposits for bottles to tackle littering

Eliminating litter is a generational challenge but eliminating bottles and cans from litter is possible, writes Victoria White

Victoria White: We need refundable deposits for bottles to tackle littering
A bulldozer of a glass recycling processing plant makes a mountain of bottles in Gameren, the Netherlands. Picture: Getty Images

Like many of us I have spent the lockdown revelling in the natural beauty of this country of ours.

I walk a stretch of the River Dodder every day with a dog and a son. Some days we see egrets, some days grey wagtails, most days herons.

Every day we see bottles and cans. Loads of them are hidden in bushes or just chucked on the grass, crunching under our feet as we walk. The pubs are closed, you see, so what can a person do but drink “in the wild”?

I challenged one young man who had been “wild drinking” on the river bank and he said he would clean up. The next morning the one nearby bin was open and overflowing while around it on all sides were piled the remaining bottles and cans.

The American lobby group Bottlebill.org has a live counter on their website which yesterday counted over 56bn bottles and cans incinerated or put into landfill in the US so far this year.

I’d say we’d outdo them, by head of population, during these lockdown months. We don’t yet have good figures on the increase in discarded bottles and cans since March — I doubt we ever will — but Westmeath County Council reported an 80% rise since March and Dublin City Council recorded a 100% increase in the number of bottles brought to bottle banks.

Overall, dumping has increased dramatically with Waterford City and County Council reporting a 20% increase in complaints.

Large, organised clean-ups were impossible under the health restrictions until last Monday but local groups and individuals have been going out in droves to fight the litter, a battle which is never won.

Eliminating litter is a generational challenge but eliminating bottles and cans from litter is possible and the epidemic of bottles and cans in our beauty spots since the lockdown forces the issue.

We need refundable deposits on glass and plastic bottles and on aluminum drinks cans. We need them stitched into the next Programme for Government.

In the context of the proposed 7% annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, people might think a few thousand bottles and cans lying around the place are a small ask. They are very important, though, in lots of ways. They publicly display our lack of care for our environment.

As Friends of the Earth director, Oisin Coughlan has said: “I worry that if it takes us this long to ponder the tried and tested technique of a deposit and return scheme for plastic bottles that we will lack the drive we need to re-engineer our entire transport, energy and food systems in less than 10 years to contain climate change.”

Outgoing Minister for the Environment Richard Bruton announced yet another “major review” of the plastic bottle problem just before the election. It is hard to see this as anything but yet another delaying tactic.

There are refundable deposits on bottles and cans in at least 35 countries and territories all over the world, including 11 European countries, 10 US states, 12 Canadian states and two Australian states.

Victoria White: We need refundable deposits for bottles to tackle littering
Victoria White argues that Ireland needs refundable deposits on glass and plastic bottles and this should be in the next Programme for Government.

However, Irish governments have spent more than a decade pretending the drinks industry’s objections to refundable deposits are their own. These objections are exactly the same as the ones listed on Bottlebill.org’s website as being used globally. They are bogus. 

The industry’s recycling operator, Repak, has consistently made the argument that beverage containers make up between 3- 3.5% of all litter pieces in Ireland and claim the extent of littering has “lessened” in recent years. 

They argue deposits would compete with kerbside recycling collection making it more expensive despite international evidence that deposits complement and reinforce kerbside collection.

A particularly idiotic statement from the Department of the Environment in 2014 even claimed that littering could be caused if people rummaged in bins in search of deposit-bearing containers!

The mountains of bottles and cans currently sitting around bins in many of our public places are a comprehensive answer to that suggestion. We don’t have nearly enough bins, we have hardly any segregated bins, they are not emptied regularly enough and beverage containers take up a lot of the space in the few there are.

Bottlebill.org’s research shows beverage containers, pull tabs and lids make up 58% of solid waste items in Kentucky. They show reductions in total amounts of litter in US states which have introduced refundable deposits running between 34%-64%. 

And that’s the US, where an uncentralised and limited deposit system is favoured, with shops usually taking back specific bottles sold by themselves.

A global overview of deposits systems carried out in 2016 by CM Consulting shows fascinating differences between deposit systems, exposing contrasting priorities and realities in different societies.

Most European systems are centralised under a State or semi-state body. In most, a deposit is paid at point of purchase and then redeemed in the shop or at a centralised returns centre, sometimes by means of a “reverse vending machine”.

Croatia achieves 90% recycling of beverage containers, Finland, 92.6%, the Netherlands 95%, Norway 96%, Germany 97% and little old Lithuania, only 74% … probably because its system had only just started operating.

Many countries exclude milk or all dairy products, some exclude pure fruit and vegetable juices. Deposits on individual items range from about 10 cents to about 40 cents. Some argue that 50 cents would offer a more appropriate incentive to the consumer.

That is the amount, points out Kevin Dennehy, chair of the Dodder Action group, that Coca Cola charges on its reusable bottles in Germany.

Ireland would rightly have its own take on deposits but surely the extensive work done by our neighbours in Scotland, where a deposit refund system will go live in July 2022, should be useful to us?

They have a similar population and drinking culture to ours and they have a customs-free land border.

Yet their research shows their 20p refundable deposit will recapture 90% of containers covered by the scheme in 17,000 return points nationwide, which can include schools and community groups.

Far from being “financially reckless… another PPARS or another voting machine fiasco”, as claimed by then-minister Denis Naughten in 2017, in reference to a proposed Irish deposit system, the scheme is projected to save money over a 25-year period, including £62m spent every year on the indirect consequences of litter while stopping 160,000 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere, equivalent to taking 83,000 cars off the road.

If we have any commitment whatsoever to the sustainability of our country into the future we should use the Scottish research to fast-track charging deposits on bottles and cans in Ireland. If not, let’s carry on crunching through the countryside.

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