Why Bottle Deposit Schemes are a Missed Opportunity

Codd Neck Soda Bottles

This article started out as a rant, by me, in the Zero Waste Ireland Facebook group, but I feel so vexed about the confusion surrounding this issue that I felt it warranted an article too. Humans are such illogical creatures, that something that seems eminently sensible can backfire badly, as could happen with reverse vending machines if not designed correctly.

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Tackling litter with bottle deposit return scheme

The much-lauded bottle deposit scheme that has just been introduced in England and proposed for here has the potential to be a anti-litter initiative or aid to the recycling industry. 

I have no doubt that paying people to put their bottle in a ‘reverse vending machine’ instead of chucking it at the side of the road or placing it in a bin will really help to clean up the litter blight we see around our fair isle, but only if reverse vending machines are located in litter blackspots in the first place.

Tackling waste with bottle deposit return schemes

Introducing bottle deposit scheme and reverse vending machines make total sense when you’re designing for our currently wasteful world. Only in a world where you see waste as unavoidable does the idea of paying people to return it to you make sense. Reverse vending machines are looking at the problem of waste through the wrong lens. 

It’s so short sighted to invest in a system that simply improves how we process our waste. We need to design for the circular economy. We need to design out waste at the outset, and something that reverse vending machines do not do is design out waste, in fact, by their very design, reverse vending machines reward us for generating waste.

The negative impact of reverse vending machines

You might well ask what’s the harm in installing these ‘reverse vending machines’? Consider if you will, the expense and energy involved in making, transporting, and running all these reverse vending machines. Plus it’s an completely missed opportunity; yet again our politicians have missed the chance to move society towards waste reduction.

As a result of bottle deposit schemes, which were introduced more than 15 years ago, German retailers have switched from reusable and infinitely recyclable glass bottles to partially recyclable plastic bottles.

I have also heard people express concern about the unintended consequences of deposit schemes on bin collection charges. If people start exchanging plastic bottles in their green bin for money at these vending machines, will the bin collection companies start increasing collection charges to cover any loss?

A better alternative to reverse vending machines

Do you know what is better than bottle deposit schemes and would have the added benefit of reducing our overall consumption of plastic, glass or metal? Investing in public fountains and subsidising soda / milk vending machines!

If this was the initiative that our politicians were putting their support behind we’d be able to benefit from cheaper (or free) liquids and reduce the number of disposable bottles littered around the country.

I get why their is confusion around this issue. When I first heard this suggested, I thought it was a great idea. It’s only when you think about the logic behind it that you start the see the flaws. Most people don’t have the time (or interest) to do this, which is why I feel compelled, as a waste geek, to clarify some aspects of the debate. If given all the facts and possible alternatives people still want these reverse vending machines, well and good, but I’d hate to think people are supporting this initiative in the misguided belief that it’ll helping reduce waste.


Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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