‘It’s this sort of stuff, to get into the hearts and minds and getting into the psyche of people that really interests me’

Re-turn boss Ciaran Foley is on a mission to change how we do our recycling

When Ciaran Foley took on the role as CEO of Re-turn, it came with a steep learning curve.

The former DHL executive had significant experience in logistics and retail, with an interest in sustainability through his involvement with food waste organisation FoodCloud, where he sits on the board. Now he was in relatively new territory – recycling.

For the past three months, he has been throwing himself into the role, learning as much as he can about the process before the scheme goes live next month.

But his attitude of jumping in feet first has certainly benefited him throughout his career. He spent several years in London on a whim, carving out a career for himself in retail after travelling there for a weeklong rugby tour, when he played under-19s.


“We were in Wales, a rugby tour from Clontarf, and my sister was up near London and said ‘look, there’s a job here in Tesco’, £5.25 an hour I remember,” he recalls “At the time I was working in a factory in the docklands.”

That was in 1989. He stayed there for almost 20 years, returning with his wife – also Irish – and children in the mid-2000s. It had always been the plan to return at some point, and when faced with a move to Peterborough or returning to Dublin to run Tesco’s distribution centre in Donabate, they chose the latter. That led to his involvement with Irish food waste initiative FoodCloud. He describes that as a “passion”.

Foley moved to delivery company DHL in 2015 to head up the supply chain and logistics business. Once again, sustainability came to the fore and one of his proudest achievements at the company involved a significant investment in biomethane to help decarbonise the delivery company’s operations in Ireland.

So when the call came about the job as chief executive of Re-turn, it wasn’t as big a leap as you might think.

The deposit return scheme itself has been a long time in the planning. Regulations governing it were signed into law in late 2021, but there has been a long lead-in to allow everyone else to get ready. Retailers have installed reverse vending machines, manufacturers have been changing packaging, and waste companies have been preparing to see some of the more valuable elements of the waste stream eliminated.

The scheme’s target: almost 2 billion drinks containers – 1 billion plastic bottles and 900 million aluminium cans – that are consumed in Ireland each year. Around 30 per cent of them never make it to recycling, ending up in landfill, incineration or on the streets, in verges and in waterways as litter.

But that is set to change. Under EU targets, Ireland has to ensure the separate collection of 77 per cent of plastic beverage bottles placed on the market by next year, a figure that rises to 90 per cent in 2029.

It is a tough target to meet under the current system. But the hope is that a financial incentive will encourage Irish consumers to help meet those targets. Each time you buy a soft drink in a plastic bottle or can, you will pay a small deposit – 15 cent or 25 cent, depending on the size of the container – that can be refunded when you return it to one of the Re-turn reverse vending machines that are being installed around the country.

“I’m confident, but I have a very positive outlook on life,” says Foley.

Located in the Repak offices near Dublin’s Red Cow Hotel, Re-turn as an organisation is funded by the producers.

“We’re here to hit the government targets and we’re here to implement the scheme for the legislation,” he says.

February 1st is D-Day, when the new cans and bottles will begin appearing on the market, bearing the Re-turn logo, and the clock starts ticking to remove the old ones. The new stock will have a barcode registered with Re-turn, which will trigger the deposit added at the till, and more importantly, allow customers to reclaim that money when they return the containers to a reverse vending machine.

Until March 15th, manufacturers can still supply their older stock without the deposit scheme logo, and retailers can sell it until May 31st. From the start of June, almost every drink can and bottle sold in the Republic will be part of the scheme.

It seems like an easy win. Recycling rates should go up; manufacturers will have a cleaner stream of recycling from which they can source more sustainable raw material. In other European countries, such as Germany and Denmark, the deposit schemes have been in place for some time and are widely considered a success.

“It’s not like we’re doing something pioneering here. It’s a proven successful methodology,” says Foley.

But it hasn’t been welcomed by everyone. In Scotland, a similar scheme is facing a two-year delay. And in Ireland, there has been plenty of opposition to the plans.

Re-turn has a lot to prove. The transition will be a complex one, Foley acknowledges, for manufacturers, retailers, waste providers and consumers.

Critics have pointed to potential shortcomings of the scheme. It will mean a change in consumer habits. Plastic bottles and aluminium cans currently go into household recycling bins, and are sorted at various centres around the country, meaning a single point of collection for most household recycling. That can lead to contamination though.

“You get to a quality of recyclate of about 85 per cent under that scheme; with the separate collections, you get to 98 per cent, much more valuable in the market and much more recyclable,” he says. “It’s key to us that we know what’s going on. So we’re working with the waste industry, because inevitably people will still put these in their recycling bins. We don’t want them to do that. But if they do, we want to keep record of it. We want to know where to focus on marketing, how do we prove things so in the interim.”

The containers must also be undamaged, so the machines can read the barcode and dimensions correctly, which has prompted concerns from consumers about storing the empty containers correctly until they can be returned.

There are people who rely on have shopping being delivered, who may be unable to return the containers themselves to collect the deposit. That could push the problem on to retailers, or leave consumers out of pocket.

Foley says Re-turn has been in contact with various groups, including the Irish Wheelchair Association, to discuss how the scheme is affecting their members, how they can ensure machines are accessible to everyone, and what can be done for those who are finding it hard to comply with the new plans.

“People should contact us and say look, here’s my particular circumstance and we will work with them to see what we can do,” he says.

Is a 15 cent deposit going to be enough to persuade people to bring the containers back? That is up in the air at the moment, although experience elsewhere indicates there may be a good take-up of the scheme. And some new charity schemes may spring up out of it too, with charities in other countries collecting containers to collect the deposit.

I hope we’re winning the trust of retailers and producers as we speak

—  Ciaran Foley

“In Ireland, whatever way you look at it, there is a lot of affluence around and 15 cents and 25 cent may not be enough to motivate people,” Foley acknowledges. “We obviously have to go on the greater good. Ultimately, there’s lots of good community things that can come out of this.” He points to at least one scheme he has heard of where local GAA clubs plan to organise collection of bottles and cans from houses, and split the deposit revenue raised with local schools in the area.

“They’ll bring the cans and bottles back to the retailer, retailers get paid a handling fee of 2.2 cents for every can or bottle that goes through the machine, and the GAA club or the school gets the deposit. So honestly, I think we’ll rely in time on lots of that stuff. Because is the 15 cents going to be enough to persuade some people? Absolutely. But others not so much.”

Recycling is, ultimately, a long game. But past initiatives in Ireland – the plastic bag levy for example – have overcome initial opposition to be considered a success.

There are other factors to consider. From the waste management companies’ perspective, it is potentially lost revenue, with two significant sources of materials removed from the waste stream.

There is no indication yet if that will ultimately mean a hike in costs for customers to cover the loss of the material; Re-turn is an industry body funded by the producers rather than those who have to deal with the resulting waste. But Foley is optimistic.

“As an industry we’re all behind this, but they’re losing significant revenue from the product that’s coming out,” says Foley. “Overall, it’s great thing to do for Ireland.”

There has been opposition to the fact that glass bottles and jars have not been included the scheme, unlike in other countries that have implemented the deposit return programme. But Foley says that is because it is not necessary.

“The good news on glass is we recycle it well,” he says. “It gives me a lot of confidence. You have the glass bottle recycling centres and people do that, so bringing plastic bottles back to the supermarket doesn’t seem much more of a stretch.”

The question is what will happen to the containers once they have been collected? The recycling movement has been hampered in the past by reports of large quantities of waste being incinerated rather than recycled. Contamination is a huge problem for recycling.

Plastic is a particularly tough one to tackle, with so many different types on the market.

But this is one issue that the deposit return scheme could solve, by creating a reliable, clean source of plastic for recycling.

Currently, that material is going off the island to the UK or Europe for recycling, not only adding to the carbon footprint of the material but also a lost source of revenue to Ireland. But Foley is optimistic that the scheme can change that – at least for plastic.

“The reason it’s done off-island is it’s not economically viable for anybody currently to have a recycling centre on the island – you’d need at least 15,000 tonnes of the same type of plastic in one place to make that economically viable. This scheme will give us 25,000 tonnes in one place.”

He describes it as a “fringe benefit” to the scheme. Already there are plans to issue a tender for a recycling facility here to take over some of the plastic material captured by the deposit return scheme.

That could take some time though, Foley admits, but it will be huge progress if it can be done on the island, removing the carbon footprint associated with transporting the material.

There are other complicating factors; the border for one. While only items registered with Re-turn can be used to reclaim the deposit, a limited number of products, which Foley says are slower moving stock with international barcodes, will retain their existing barcodes. The producers will pay a fee to do so, and Re-turn will be monitoring their introduction into the recycling system to see if that needs to be adjusted over time.

But Foley is optimistic that, when the scheme is assessed in a short while, it will show a net positive for the environment.

Foley is equally upbeat about the prospects for Re-turn. The office is already planning to expand to about 36 people some time this year, but he has high hopes that it could make a real difference to the community.

“It’s this sort of stuff, to get into the hearts and minds and getting into the psyche of people that really interests me. I hope we’re winning the trust of retailers and producers as we speak,” he says. “But if we win the trust of consumers and government then there’s lots more potentially we could do more in the future then recycling just bottles and cans.”


Ciaran Foley

Job title:

Chief executive of Re-turn Ireland




Lusk, Dublin, with his wife and three children

Something that might surprise you:

He is a former rugby player, which led to his move to the UK

Something that you would expect:

He is passionate about sustainability, and has brought that into his career with both DHL and Tesco