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The Swedish Deposit Return System – What Could the UK Learn?

May 10, 2019 | Insights,

Scotland has announced the introduction of a 20 pence deposit on steel, aluminium, glass and PET plastic containers as part of a comprehensive new deposit return system for recyclable bottles and cans. Across the rest of the UK, consultations on similar systems are drawing to a close.

Deposit return systems are often seen as a useful way to boost recycling rates, reduce litter and cut carbon emissions. Systems can work in a variety of ways and consultations in the UK have drawn on experience from existing deposit return systems around the world.

One of the longest running is Sweden’s system for plastic and aluminium beverage containers, in operation for over 35 years. Marco Suter and Nick Cuomo look at what the UK can learn from Sweden’s experience.

Sweden’s deposit return system

The Swedish deposit return system is managed by Returpack, a company owned by the country’s retailers and drink producers. The system includes aluminium cans and plastic PET bottles in all sizes (similar to the “all-in” option in the UK consultation).

2017 recycling rates of 84% for PET bottles and 81% for aluminium cans are impressive, although the target of 90% has never been achieved. By comparison, the recycling rate for plastic packaging in Sweden’s kerbside collection system was 44% in the same year.

Glass containers are not covered by Sweden’s deposit return system. Nonetheless, over 90 percent of glass is recycled in Sweden, thanks to strong social norms and convenient kerbside collection. In contrast, the UK’s consultation proposes to include glass containers in the deposit return system alongside aluminium and plastic PET containers.

Material UK (2016) Recycling policy Sweden (2017) Recycling policy
Aluminium cans 51% EPR 81% DRS
PET bottles Incl. in plastic EPR 84% DRS
Plastic packaging 45% EPR 44% EPR
Glass bottles 68% EPR 93% EPR
Paper 82% EPR 82% EPR

DRS = deposit return system; EPR = extended producer responsibility (mainly kerbside).

Materials to include

Deposit return systems emerged in both Sweden and Norway as an economic necessity. Refillable glass bottles were an expensive resource and a deposit return system was a convenient way for producers to get bottles back.

When single-use plastic and aluminium beverage containers became more common, this deposit return system for glass bottles was made obsolete.

At the same time, however, concerns about littering prompted the Swedish government to mandate a deposit return system for cans in 1984 and for PET bottles in 1994. Nowadays, the advantages of deposit return systems are associated less with reducing littering and more with circular waste treatment.

Even so, as the table above shows, certain types of packaging can also reach high recycling rates if they are part of a well-functioning extended producer responsibility system. So finding the right fit for deposit return systems is key.

Recent research by Anthesis has examined those criteria that could help determine which types of packaging and materials should be included in a deposit return system. They include:

  • Volume
    The packaging waste stream should be large enough to allow processing to be economic.
  • Homogeneity
    For plastic, in order to facilitate the sorting processes the waste stream should not contain too many different polymers.
  • Contamination
    There should be no issues with hygiene, such as food waste, during collection for the consumers and the retailers.
  • Straight-forwardness
    Consumers should be able to easily understand which products are covered by the deposit return system and which are not.
  • Efficient collection
    The collection and transport of products for recycling should not cause a significant share of their environmental impacts. In deposit return systems, the high weight-to-volume ratio of glass causes relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, while lighter aluminium cans and PET bottles result in significantly lower emissions. However, recycling glass does avoid a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 90 percent of glass is recycled in Sweden, thanks to strong social norms and convenient kerbside collection.

Challenges and barriers

Reverse vending machines play a key role in the Swedish deposit return system. Locating them in retail stores makes it convenient for consumers to return bottles and cans and get the deposit back.

While the retailers have a fast and efficient way of processing the returned goods, they can also attract potential consumers to their store and are compensated with a handling fee for each container. However, retail stores in central locations experience high volumes of returned goods while losing valuable selling space. Deposit return systems need to be flexible enough to accommodate these differences.

If there is one key lesson to be distilled from Sweden’s long experience of deposit return systems, it is that governments and regulators should set clear goals and leave industry to find the best and most efficient ways to achieve them.

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Miliute-Plepiene, J., Hage, O., Plepys, A., and Reipas, A., 2016. What motivates households recycling behaviour in recycling schemes of different maturity? Lessons from Lithuania and Sweden. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Vol. 113, p. 40–52.

Simon, B., Amor, M.B., and Földényi, R., 2016. Life cycle impact assessment of beverage packaging systems: focus on the collection of post-consumer bottles. Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 112, p. 238–248.

About the authors

Marco Suter is studying sustainable technology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and is currently writing his master thesis at the Stockholm office of Anthesis. In his thesis he investigates if and how the scope of the Swedish deposit return system could be extended to plastic packaging and what lessons could be learned from the existing system for PET bottles.

Nick Cuomo is a consultant for the waste, e-esource and sustainability team at Anthesis and has worked for a broad range of clients, helping them to better understand the efficient use of resources and managing waste. Nick is an expert at analyzing and modelling data to measure the potential impacts that emerging policy and market trends may have on clients’ business functions to help develop future strategy.

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