Kerbside deposit return schemes prove their value to brands and households

Polytag teamOct 7, 20217 min read

Results from Wales’ first Kerbside Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) pilot, which ran in Conwy, North Wales, over the summer, have shown consumers to be highly engaged, with 97% of registered households returning at least one bottle over four weeks.

With lower deployment costs and consumers becoming au fait with scanning QR codes during the pandemic, kerbside DRSs can be one of the most effective ways of enabling the packaging circular economy and reducing litter.

And with a plethora of data collected via at-home scanning and during collections, brands can benefit from gaining access to invaluable, real-time data on consumer behaviour and recycling rates. This delivers an opportunity to reduce their plastic packaging tax costs, as well as crafting engaging sustainability stories for their environmentally-conscious customers.

High engagement rate shows consumers are onboard

Negating the need to return containers in person, the kerbside DRS pilot saw households receive six uniquely tagged Princes Gate mineral water bottles over a four-week period (covering June and July 2021).

During the pilot, households received six bottles of uniquely tagged Princes Gate water (Image Holder Text)

During the joint initiative between technology supplier Polytag, the Welsh Government, Conwy Council, Ecosurety and Wrap Cymru, residents in Colwyn Heights, Conwy were asked to scan the bottles when placing them in their usual kerbside recycling containers, using a free app. The bottles were scanned again upon collection by Conwy County Borough Council’s household waste recycling team.

For each bottle scanned, householders received a digital token, each worth 20p. The results prove to Governments and brands that consumers would be engaged in a scheme of this type. Over four weeks, nine in 10 (90%) registered households scanned four or more bottles, with 193 (73%) scanning all six.

Digital trumps conventional DRS, offering major benefits for brands

The Conwy pilot leveraged Wales-based start-up Polytag’s digital DRS ‘tag and trace’ technology. The innovative recycling platform enables brands to describe the packaging, then to ‘tag’ their packaging at the point of manufacture, then, with the help of consumers, ‘trace’ it, so it can be isolated from the existing recycling waste stream and reprocessed in an optimal way to retain high-value plastics and minimise downcycling. All consumers are required to do is scan a small QR-type code on a product’s packaging.

Traditional Deposit Return Schemes (DRSs) are commonly based on a return-to-retailer model, with extensive use of reverse vending machines and separate DRS counting centres managing the flow of material from the consumer to the recycling plant. However, Defra estimates a deployment cost of more than £6bn over 11 years, while they are also viewed as being inconvenient for users and retailers. Plus, DRSs are typically carbon-intensive as they rely on households driving to a reverse vending machine and the manufacture and installation of the machines carries a large carbon footprint.

A digital, kerbside DRS promises a better experience for brands for a number of reasons. The nature of the scheme allows more extensive data to be drawn upon. In turn, retailers and brands can bolster their sustainability messages to improve brand reputation, by detailing how many bottles are recycled or make up new bottles. Further to this, by delivering more transparency with the data, the scheme can help brands accurately identify the plastic tax they are required to pay.

Plus, a kerbside DRS is more convenient for households because they leverage the existing council kerb-side recycling processes, which increases engagement, as demonstrated by the Conwy pilot. A kerbside DRS can also complement reverse vending machine DRS by offering households greater choice and flexibility in terms of how and when they recycle. Whilst convenient for brands and consumers, the user-friendly kerbside DRS technology is also compatible with existing infrastructure, complementing existing and well-established household recycling processes in Wales.

And they are more environmentally friendly too, helping Wales to deliver on its Zero Waste targets while also cutting carbon emissions through a closed-loop packaging economy. Using data from a report published by the Irish Waste Management Association, which compared carbon emissions associated with conventional DRS to those likely to result from a kerbside (digital) DRS, it is estimated that in Wales, the net benefit in terms of carbon emissions derived from adopting kerbside DRS would be approximately 13,000 tCO2e per annum – the equivalent to burning 6,500t of coal each year.

Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, said: “This has been a really encouraging pilot project that we will learn from as we work towards rooting out waste and reusing as much as we can as part of our efforts to tackle climate change. Digital Deposit Return Schemes, like this one deployed in Colwyn Heights, help Local Authorities, brands and regulators to monitor recycling rates, so they can better understand the habits of households. By using these new technologies we are one step closer to creating a truly circular economy.”

Alice Rackley, CEO of Polytag, added: “Across the UK, consumers go through an estimated 14bn plastic drinks bottles, 9bn drinks cans and 5bn glass[1] bottles a year, according to Defra. A huge amount of that packaging waste is not recycled because it is not disposed of properly. We created Polytag to provide a simple way to help change consumer behaviour and encourage higher levels of recycling for drinks containers.

“As we move closer to implementing a nationwide DRS, it is vital that brands, retailers, government and technology suppliers work together to find the most convenient way for consumers to recycle containers. We firmly believe that kerbside-based collections are the most effective way to achieve real change whilst delivering significant benefits to brands. This has now been proven in two trials, the latest in Conwy, where engagement was 97%, and in Greasby on the Wirral where we saw 91% of tagged packaging successfully recycled.

“We are hugely grateful to Conwy County Borough Council for their invaluable support throughout the pilot. The team has been instrumental in getting this initiative off the ground and it couldn’t have been delivered without their buy-in and commitment.

“This is echoed by the enthusiasm shown by the Welsh Government towards this recent pilot which further demonstrates how committed the country is to deliver a successful DRS – it’s no surprise that Wales is the third best in the world for recycling. We hope that their approach is followed by the other devolved nations and the UK government, as they consider the next steps in deploying the scheme.”

Consultation on the introduction of a deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is now closed, with the results expected to be announced later this year.

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[1] According to DEFRA