Is it time we got the bottle to return to deposit schemes?

A recent poll shows that the public are in favour of a revival of deposit-and- return systems. The chief bottle washers, however, remain unconvinced

God be with the days when we used to go back to the shop with our empty bottles of Taylor Keith lemonade and get refunds.

It may have been just a few pence for each bottle returned, but every little helped, and the extra coins could be used to supplement our pocket money so we could buy more sweets – or more red lemonade.

A recent opinion poll carried by Coastwatch Ireland found that many people from the over-40s bracket are nostalgic for the days when Ireland still had deposit- and-return schemes for drinks containers. It also found there is overwhelming public support for the return of the deposit and return.

The poll of 1,426 adults and children over 10 found that 89 per cent were positive about such a proposal, with just 6 per cent against and 5 per cent giving it “conditional approval”. The over-40s said they had “fond memories” of the good old days when they could get money back on their bottles.


According to an analysis of the poll by Maxime Masini and Fionn O'Brien of Coastwatch, incentives were the first choice for measures to reduce drinks-container litter, with 50 per cent support, followed by stricter law-enforcement (35 per cent) and more clean-ups (21 per cent).

Unlike in the past, Ireland now had a "one use and dispose" drinks-container regime, with only a small number of containers – mainly bottles from pubs – actually reused, says Coastwatch director Karin Dubsky. This has knock-on consequences in terms of litter.

Marine litter, whether in the sea or on the shore, is still a problem. Plastic waste poses a particularly serious threat to fish, seabirds and marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins. One of the aims of the EU's Marine Strategy Framework Directive is to reduce such risks.

"Drinks containers are the convenience packaging for outdoor recreation," Dubsky told a recent workshop in Trinity College on implementing the EU directive. "With more than 7,000km of seashore, coastal tourism is likely to grow and drinks-container litter is likely to rise.

“With unemployment high here, Coastwatch is making the case that the conditions are right in Ireland to introduce a job-intensive litter-prevention scheme, such as deposit-and-return on drinks containers,” she added.

The crunch issue is whether anyone in authority will listen. Mindy O’Brien, a US-born co-ordinator of the Voice environmental group, told the conference that the classic Thwaites soda-water bottles – with their thick glass and chromed spouts – were the first in the world to be subject to a deposit-and-return scheme, dating back to 1799.

Moving forward to the modern era, she had some bad news. She said that 61 per cent of plastic PET bottles in Ireland – amounting to 43,000 tonnes – were still being landfilled, while only 55 per cent of valuable aluminium cans were recycled here.

This compares unfavourably with countries that have bring-back regimes.

Repak, the voluntary compliance scheme under which producers take responsibility for the packaging waste they generate, is not buying the bad news. It maintains that a Central Statistics Office report from last year shows that our recycling performance has been impressive.

"Specifically, it shows that Ireland's 2011 recovery target of 60 per cent under the EU packaging directive was achieved and surpassed by 2008," says Repak chief executive Andrew Hetherington. Indeed, that figure is likely to have risen as high as 74 per cent since then.

"The statistics show that by 2009, Ireland was recovering 152kg per capita of packaging waste, the third highest in the EU behind Germany and Luxembourg, " he said. "The amount of municipal waste sent to landfill had fallen to just below 1.5 million tonnes in 2010."

Since 1997, Repak claims to have diverted more than 5.7 million tonnes of used packaging from landfill and invested more than €225 million in packaging recycling. “This outstanding achievement”, as Hetherington calls it, demonstrates “the success of the Repak model”.

The Coastwatch conference, organised with the department of civil and environmental engineering at Trinity College, heard from foreign experts on how drinks-container litter is dealt with elsewhere, notably in more environmentally aware northern European countries.

Frank Strebe, director of Deutsche Pfandsystem, which levies 25 cents on each of the 50 million beverage containers used daily in Germany, said it had achieved a 99.7 per cent return rate, mainly because it is compulsory nationwide.

The deposit-and-return system is easy to use, via “reverse vending machines” in every shop or supermarket, which dispense tokens that can be redeemed at a till.

All aluminium cans or plastic bottles in Germany are security-coded to make sure it is not abused by outsiders.

Recycling rates of 95 per cent
Thomas Morgenstern, of Norwegian- owned Tomra Systems, which invented the reverse vending machine, said well- designed deposit-and-return systems could achieve recycling rates of 80 to 95 per cent and even higher (as in Germany), when the regime is compulsory.

He told the Trinity workshop that Tomra was now dealing with more than 30 billion drinks containers from 35 deposit- and-return systems worldwide – all of which had created “new green and local jobs”. His company employs more than 300 people.

Ireland would need to install an infrastructure of reverse vending machines for a deposit-and-return drinks container regime to work here. However, since the “Repak model” is seen as adequate by the Department of the Environment, change will only happen if there is a public demand for it.

Dubsky is undeterred by the challenge. Years ago, she took on the coal lobby – then headed by the late John Reihill, owner of Tedcastle Holdings – and convinced Mary Harney, then minister of state for environmental protection, that the distribution and sale of smokey coal had to be banned in Dublin and elsewhere. And look where that has taken us.