EU’s deposit refund scheme a ‘false solution’ for plastic pollution

The European Union in early March announced its goal of establishing deposit refund schemes for plastic bottles and aluminium cans across the bloc by 2029.

A man collects used bottles to return them for their deposit refunds in Berlin, Germany on January 17, 2019. Photo: © David Gannon, AFP

The European Union in early March announced its goal of establishing deposit refund schemes for plastic bottles and aluminium cans across the bloc by 2029. While EU authorities boast of high recycling rates in member states that have already adopted the practice, environmental groups denounce it as a “false solution” that doesn’t “tackle the real problem”.

The EU aims to become a star performer in the fight against plastic pollution. The bloc’s 27 countries earlier this month announced measures to address packaging waste that aim to achieve 100 percent recycling rates by 2035 and a 15 percent reduction in waste volume by 2040. According to Eurostat, the average European citizen generated 188.7 kilograms of packaging waste in 2021, an increase of 32 kilograms over a decade. Only 64 percent of that amount is recycled today.

Among the various types of packaging filling trash bins in Europe, two make up the majority: plastic bottles and aluminium cans. In France alone, an estimated 340,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were produced for sale in 2022 and only 50 percent were recycled, according to France’s national agency for ecological transition.

To address this problem, the EU proposes to implement a bloc-wide deposit refund system by 2029. Plastic bottles and aluminium cans would be sold for a few cents more, around five to 10 percent of the product’s price, but the consumer could recoup the added cost by bringing the container to a collection point after use. The process is already well-established in 15 European countries including Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states.

The EU reports record recycling rates in each country where a deposit system already exists. In Germany, all supermarkets have had machines dedicated to “Pfand” (deposits) for returned plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans since 2003. While consumers are not obligated to use them, the practice has become part of everyday life. “Pfandsammler” (deposit hunters) clear the streets of used containers to help make ends meet. Up to 98.5 percent of bottles and cans are recycled via the deposit system in Germany, according to the Centre for European Consumption.

A similar situation exists in the Nordic countries. In Sweden, aluminium cans have been returnable since 1984; plastic bottles since 1994. The country recycles more than two billion of these containers a year, according to the government. In Norway, the system is a little different: Beverage packaging is subject to an environmental tax, but its amount decreases as the waste collection rate increases. This measure encouraged producers and distributors to introduce a deposit system in 1999. The country’s recycling rate for glass and plastic bottles borders is close to 90 percent.

 

A dangerous 'rebound effect'
Deposit refund systems are not, however, “miracle solutions”, says Manon Richert, communications manager for the NGO Zero Waste France. “This system can certainly help improve recycling figures, but it doesn’t target the goal we need to have: drastically reducing our production of plastic.”

“By itself, it’s just another way to sort packaging … it won’t change anything that happens to plastic bottles,” says Richert. Once deposited, a bottle will have the same fate as one placed in a traditional recycling bin. It will be collected and sent to a waste treatment plant. Bottles made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of plastic) will be used to make new ones; other bottles will be transformed into flakes and resold to make polyester, especially in Asia. “These processes require a lot of water and energy and generate microplastics,” Richert says.

According to the activist, a bloc-wide deposit system could above all produce a “rebound effect” that would encourage consumers to continue buying plastic bottles – the opposite of the EU’s goal. “For years, we have been fed a discourse that presents waste sorting and recycling as an easy green gesture, and we have spread the idea that buying plastic isn’t so bad if we recycle it. And now, we’re going to add a financial incentive,” she says. “This could have the perverse effect of boosting consumption of plastic bottles.”

This effect has already been seen in Germany. A law passed in 2003 aimed to reduce single-use containers to 20 percent of the market, but the opposite has happened: single-use plastic bottles now account for 71 percent of the market compared with 40 percent a decade ago, according to a 2021 University of Halle-Wittenberg study. “It seems that the introduction of a single-use deposit system promotes a narrow mode of thinking and a focus on recycling, which hinders the revitalisation of multi-use BC (beverage container) systems,” the authors found.

"Behind the recycling deposit, it’s more a battle of financial interests than an environmental issue that’s at stake,” says Richert. In recent years, politicians have done more to force manufacturers to use a growing proportion of recycled plastic in production. The demand for recycled plastic has thus grown, and the material has become more expensive.

Collecting and recycling more bottles would increase the quantity of recycled plastic available, therefore lowering its price – “not exactly what encourages manufacturers to reduce production,” says Richert. “In the end, this measure risks maintaining the plastic production cycle, when we need to break it.”

In France, where debate on a deposit system is lively, the collection and sorting of rubbish is currently managed by local and regional authorities, who sell the trash to recyclers. In moving to a deposit system, the management of used plastics would revert to manufacturers, who would recover a financial windfall.

"The manufacturers are not going to get rich” under such a system, retorts Hélène Courades, director general of beverage industry group Boissons rafraîchissantes de France, which includes Coca-Cola and Pepsi, told Le Figaro. “The resale of this material would make it possible to finance the system."

 

Recycling vs reuse
Zero Waste France, like other environmental organisations, is actively campaigning for a different system: a deposit for reuse, mostly for glass. “This existed in France until the 1980s,” says Richert. “The idea is to collect the containers to wash them and reuse them as-is, in line with the principle of a circular economy.”

“If this were organised on a local scale with, for example, optimisation and pooling of transport, the environmental and social impact would be very beneficial,” she says. But while such local and voluntary initiatives have been increasing in recent years, the system has not yet been adopted by the political discourse. “It requires a real paradigm shift and a true effort on the part of the government,” says Richert. “But it’s this kind of measure that can really get us away from disposable packaging and our addiction to plastic.”

               This article is a translation of the original in French.