Defra rules out supermarket calls for deposit return scheme pilot

The department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) has ruled out supermarket calls for deposit return scheme pilots.

Speaking at House of Commons’ public accounts committee, Defra permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein said doing a pilot in the UK is “really hard because it doesn’t really work unless you do it end to end”.

She added that the “best information” Defra currently has is from countries which already have a deposit return scheme, including Norway and Denmark.

“We [also] have quite a lot of information from different small trials,” Finkelstein added.

“Orkney did a trial and there have been trials by supermarket groups of parts of the system.”

A British Retail Consortium (BRC) spokesperson told Sustainability Beat that as the UK is a “different market” it will be “hard to draw complete comparisons,” especially as the country has developed an online grocery sector and an existing household recycling system.

“UK online grocery market is extremely dynamic and would be heavily disrupted by the deposit return scheme,” the spokesperson said.

“There is also a wider context that matters – UK has well-established kerbside collections, and a substantial on-the-go consumption habit.”

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Deposit return scheme uncertainties

A National Audit Office (NAO) report suggested that the continuous delay is a change to test the scheme, “particularly where the scale of the planned benefits is uncertain”, adding that “a pilot scheme would be beneficial to protect value for money,” in case of collapses similar to Circularity Scotland.

Finkelstein also cast doubt on whether the UK would follow the previous plans in Scotland with a 20p deposit for drinks containers, suggesting the figure could be higher.

“We’re not at the point where the Scottish scheme had got to whereby it set a 20p per bottle deposit, but we need to take that back in as we look for an interoperable scheme.”

It is unclear whether the scheme will include glass, which had been planned by Scotland before they were ruled out by Westminster.

“Frankly Defra seems to have been trying to pretend the issue with glass doesn’t exist,” a source told the Grocer. “It’s very much the elephant in the room.”

Meanwhile Defra said its much-delayed guidance on consistent local authority collections will be published “imminently.”

For its part, the BRC emphasised retailers have “clearly expressed” their opinion on glass.

“Excluding glass makes the scheme operationally more deliverable and cheaper. Including glass containers will make a deposit return scheme more costly and complex and therefore we continue to oppose the inclusion at launch of those containers,” it said.

Supermarkets working behind the scenes

Due to the uncertainty on how the Defra will agree on deposit return schemes across the country, the BRC said retailers want to see “regulatory certainty first before embarking on any delivery”.

While the government decides, the BRC emphasised that the space has not been “dormant” and action has been happening behind the scenes.

“In the UK, our members have individually undertaken various initiatives to incentivise customers, but also to scope out impacts on targeted retail operations,” it said.

The BRC also noted the ongoing trial in Wales where its members are testing the concept of a digital deposit return scheme.

“Our members have already extensively trialled the in-store elements for deposit return (and indeed many operate schemes elsewhere),” the BRC added.

“The missing element is what happens before a container arrives in store, and what happens once it has been collected. These elements don’t really require significant retail involvement – it’s about putting the right structures in place elsewhere.”

What should Defra do now?

“[Defra] should really focus its efforts and energy on getting to a stage where we have an aligned, coherent and workable plan on DRS and a delivery roadmap that is embedded in a realistic timeframe,” the BRC spokesperson told Sustainability Beat.

“It’s essential the UK government, and indeed the other home nation governments, take their time to get a simple, realistic deposit return scheme designed,” they added.

“If that is rushed now it will simply take much longer to implement in the future; as we have already seen in Scotland.”

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