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Buy-drink-return: how deposits on cans and bottles will untangle recycling confusion

20th November 2018

Litter pick collects a staggering 11,212 drinks containers of all materials and sizes – but the imminent introduction of a deposit return system is set to spark a recycling revolution

Throughout September, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) held 35 litter picks across England as part of its nationwide ‘Green Clean’. As well as helping communities clean up their local green spaces, CPRE wanted to highlight the astonishing variety of cans and bottles discarded across our countryside, towns and cities [1].

In Dorset the Green Clean initiative was supported by Schools, Community Groups and Organisations including: Litter Free Dorset, Dorset Devils (Bournemouth Beach), Dorset Wildlife Trust (Worbarrow Bay), Litter Free Purbeck (Frank Roberts also recorded a video of litter collected on the A351 main road between Wareham and Swanage), Wareham Wombles, Damers First School with The Thomas Hardye School, and West Dorset Conservatives (Weymouth Beach). The CPRE Reverse Vending Machine visited Dorset from 13th to 15th September. Volunteers were able to dispose of, and receive cash for, each of the drinks containers they pick, giving people a feel for how the national system will work and highlighting how financial incentives can help to boost recycling. Litter Free Dorset has just launched a new campaign ‘Don’t be a TOS53R’ in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy aimed at those who toss their rubbish out of car windows – visit for more details.

The data resulting from the Green Clean events will help the Government as it designs England’s ‘deposit return system’ [2], which – if properly set up to collect every drinks can and bottle – will provide a simple solution to recycling confusion and boost recycling rates for drinks container waste to more than 90% [3].

Volunteers taking part in the Green Clean collected a total of 11,212 cans and bottles of all shapes, sizes and materials [4]. Over a third (35%) of those collected were made from plastic, 50% were aluminium, 14% glass and 1% Tetra Pak.

While plastic packaging has been making the headlines, this data shows that two-thirds of all drinks containers littered are made from other materials – such as aluminium and glass – and should be taken just as seriously.

Of the plastics: 10% were small bottles (below 500ml), 71% were medium sized (500ml – average water bottle), 10% were large (501ml-1.5l), and 9% were considered extra-large (more than 1.5l).

Of the cans: 18% were small (below 330ml – small energy drink), 29% were medium sized (330ml – average fizzy drink can), and 53% were large (more than 330ml – average beer can).

Of the glass bottles: 25% were small (under 330ml – stubby and regular beer bottle), 42% were medium sized (400-750ml – larger beer bottle), and 33% were large (more than 750 ml – wine bottles and large spirits bottles).

CPRE’s evidence demonstrates that there is no limit to the types and sizes of cans and bottles that are causing harm to our wildlife and natural world. It should provide the incentive for the Government to make the right decision and ensure that all cans and bottles, of all types and sizes, are included in England’s deposit return system.

Samantha Harding, Litter Programme Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said:

‘By introducing a simple deposit system the Government has a golden opportunity to end growing scepticism around current recycling methods, collect and recycle more materials than ever right here in the UK, and ensure that those who produce the packaging rightly pay the full cost of recovering the materials that they produce. But it will only work if it is universal in the types of cans and bottles it accepts.’

‘Deposit return infrastructure is the same for large plastic bottles as it would be for small plastic bottles, cans and glass – failing to set the system up to collect all that it can, will set the system up to fail. The Government is committed to tackling waste and boosting recycling and with this solution it has the chance to get things right.

‘In recent times, there has been a noticeable shift in consumer behaviour and attitudes – people genuinely want to take responsibility for the amount of packaging used. We all want recycling to work, but our data clearly shows that current collection methods are failing.’

In March this year, the Government promised to ‘introduce a deposit return scheme in England for single use drinks containers, subject to consultation later this year’ [5]. However, there are many within the drinks and packaging industries attempting to dilute the system and limit the type and size of containers that will be included.

CPRE will share this data with the Government, via its upcoming deposit return consultation, to make sure England gets the best-designed system. In order to be as effective as possible, the system must accept cans and bottles of all materials, shapes and sizes. That includes drinks packaging that is on the market now, as well as being future-proofed against changes to the type and size of containers in the future.


Notes to Editor:

1.       Full details on when and where ‘Green Cleans’ took place throughout England can be found here:

2.       What is a ‘deposit return system’?

A deposit return system is the most effective recycling system, delivering much higher levels of recyclable waste collection, as well as increasing the quantity of low contamination, high quality materials collected for recycling.

How does it work?

Buy-drink-return – it’s as simple as that. When you buy a drink, you pay a small deposit (10-20p) and then when you return the container to one of the many return points, you get your deposit back. Thanks to the monetary incentive, such schemes already in operation throughout the world achieve unrivalled return rates of between 70-98.5%, with an associated reduction in other container litter of up to 80%.

Who pays for it?

Set up costs for the system are paid by the producers of drinks container packaging via a one-off fee, often known as a ‘joining fee’. The ongoing costs for the system are funded by:

-          Unclaimed deposits

-          Material revenues, received from the sale of glass, aluminium and plastic collected via the deposit return system

-          Producer fees, which make up the balance between income from material revenues and unclaimed deposits against the costs of collection, transport, processing, administration and handling fees – ie. the administration fee guarantees the deposit system is ‘cost neutral’ overall

In short, the system follows the ‘polluter pays’ principle, ensuring that the cost of dealing with drinks containers is met by those who produce them and those who litter them. There is a net-zero cost to retailers, and consumers will only be out of pocket if they do not return the can or bottle after consumption.

3.       Countries that already have simple – but complete – deposit systems in place, such as Norway and Germany, also have the most effective recycling systems, which are less confusing for consumers and achieve recycle rates as high as 98.5%.

Plastic bottles

Small (under 500ml)

Medium (500ml)

Large (501ml-1.5l)

Extra-large (more than 1.5l)








% based on size breakdowns






Material totals*





table continues


Glass bottles

Tetra Pak























% based on size breakdowns











Material totals*







*note ‘material totals’ are higher than ‘totals’ as some data on size was incomplete. Incomplete data was not included in % of size breakdown in order not to skew the data.

4.       Deposit return scheme in fight against plastic



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