As has been widely touted in the media Michael Gove has announced, subject to consultation, the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) to increase recycling rates and slash the amount of waste polluting our land and seas. The scheme will tackle single use drinks containers whether plastic, glass or metal. The announcement will be deemed as a significant victory for the many organisations who have been campaigning for its introduction. Is it the success they believe?

Advocates agree with DEFRA’s view that that DRS will boost recycling and cut littering. Evidence from other countries suggest that this is likely if deposit return machines are sited in busy centres where people are eating and drinking on the move. Currently the waste infrastructure on the street is woefully inadequate for a populace that is increasingly eating and drinking on the go. This is clearly hampering recycling rates and leading to littering.

It is more than likely that DRS could be just the nudge people need to recycle bottles and cans with every likelihood that a reward will also encourage people to collect discarded bottles from the street. Evidence from overseas also suggests that the materials collected will not be too contaminated ensuring they retain their value to the recycling industry.

Experience gathered by Hubbub from our Square Mile Challenge suggests that where these machines are placed will be important. We collected most coffee cups for recycling at destination points such as offices, transport hubs, educational establishments, hospitals and public buildings. All of these are ‘managed spaces’ which are relatively easy to maintain. Where we put recycling points on the street they were more likely to be damaged and contamination increased.

A successful DRS scheme will involve finding a wide range of organisations willing to host and maintain DRS machines on their premises. Will this be at high street retailers who might need persuading to fill valuable retail space with a machine that is unlikely to generate revenue and could need regular maintenance?

Wherever they are placed a deposit return scheme will not be the golden bullet to address street litter. The most commonly littered items are cigarettes and chewing gum whilst smaller pieces of litter such as sweet wrappers are more likely to end up in our drains and waterways. Reducing this litter will require on-going behaviour change campaigns and better product design.

It is likely that retailers will to want to place machines in their larger out-of-town sites where there is more space. This could be counter-productive. Most local authorities currently have an infrastructure for collecting plastic bottles and cans. The revenue from this is important for keeping these schemes viable. Putting DRS machines in places which can easily be reached by car may persuade some people to take their bottles and cans to these machines for the reward they receive rather than using the existing facilities. If this happens a new more expensive solution might be replacing an existing infrastructure.

A lot of the above is conjecture based on limited evidence. The whole debate around DRS has been typified by strong emotions on both sides with little tangible or unbiased proof either way. The introduction of DRS will be a big brave move with high environmental and financial costs attached. It is to be hoped that the announcement from Michael Gove recognises the complexities and seeks to initially introduce DRS in spaces where it is likely to have the most positive impact without harming existing infrastructure.