A deposit return scheme for Edinburgh

Tackling Edinburgh’s litter problem should start with a deposit return scheme for cans and bottles, says Steve Burgess.

With the UK election over, it is time for a non-partisan idea for the UK’s four governments to get moving on: deposit return for drinks cans and bottles. More than a quarter of a billion people around the world pay a small deposit on drinks containers and get it back when they return their empties to a retailer. Deposits cut litter, boost recycling, cut local councils’ costs, and support retailers through a handling fee.

It’s the same principle as the carrier bag charge, except that you would get your money back in full. That charge reduced the number of bags handed out in the first year by 80%, and countries with deposit systems see recycling rates of around 95%, well above the roughly 50% we manage here.

And it is genuinely cross-party. The Welsh Conservatives recently backed the idea, the SNP delivered successful pilots here in Scotland, and Scottish Labour announced their support earlier this year. And it’s been Green and Lib Dem policy for a long time.

The system is paid for through the deposits on the small proportion of empties that aren’t returned, plus the value of the larger quantity of pre-sorted materials for recycling, plus a small contribution by the producers, typically around half a penny per item. In exchange they would get a ready supply of recycled materials for their new products, and also the PR benefits of us not seeing their empties littered in our parks, streets and waterways.

It’d be good for retailers too: they would see increased footfall plus a substantial net financial benefit, and smaller retailers would be exempt, although the experience elsewhere shows that many would take part anyway, given the benefit to their bottom line.

And the public would be better off as well – at least, those who don’t litter. Right now everyone pays for litter clean-up and bin emptying through general taxation, but the Scottish Government published research showing Scottish local authorities would save £13m between them each year with deposits. Edinburgh has a terrible litter problem, and bins that are full not long after being emptied. Around a third of the waste in our city’s bins, by volume, is air in cans and bottles, valuable materials that we pay to send to landfill. I’d rather we weren’t spending your money unnecessarily like this.

There’s much that politicians disagree on, but consensus here seems possible. As a councillor I know how much my constituents care about the volume of litter, and how upset many people are about plastic litter in the sea. So the Scottish Government needs to act promptly. If Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham decides to act, I’m sure all parties will back her.

This blog first featured in the Edinburgh Evening News