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Container deposit laws: cleaner, more sustainable

We have a major problem with beverage containers in Australia. Between 7-8 billion are land-filled or littered every year. Nationally, less than half are recycled, and drink containers continue to pollute…

Drink containers are a threat to sea birds and marine life. And they’re ugly. Flickr/Cleaner Croydon

We have a major problem with beverage containers in Australia. Between 7-8 billion are land-filled or littered every year. Nationally, less than half are recycled, and drink containers continue to pollute waterways and oceans where they wreak havoc on seabirds.

Container deposit schemes are the only proven way to eradicate drink containers from litter. In South Australia the scheme removes and recycles 80% of cans and bottles, twice that of normal roadside recycling.

So, I was surprised to read a recent article led by Dick Gross at University of Melbourne suggesting container deposit laws are out-dated and inefficient.

Mr Gross suggests Victoria - a state without container deposit laws - is cleaner than South Australia, citing the Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index. But the annual study has some serious flaws.

For instance, it assesses the same number of sites across all states, no matter their land area or population size. It also doesn’t account for whether the area being studied was recently or is frequently cleaned. And it treats a cigarette butt - which will break down in 1-5 years - the same as a drink container.

This makes the index unreliable for comparing states. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in South Australia there is virtually no drink container litter in the streets, parks, waterways or beaches.

Far from being old-fashioned, in the last decade various Pacific Islands, Hawaii, Israel and Germany have all adopted container deposit schemes. Another 40-odd states or countries around the world retain this approach to deal with litter and recycling – despite the often constant lobbying against them by sections of the drinks and packaging sector.

The Council of Australian Governments concluded in 2011 that a container deposit scheme would cost between A$1.4-$1.7b over 20 years. As it stands kerbside recycling currently costs local councils and ratepayers somewhere between A$300-600m each year.

The $1.4-$1.7bn cited above, is however worth qualifying. This “economic” cost relates to two things: the cost of peoples time to recycle, and private sector investment in building the necessary infrastructure of depots to operate the scheme.

The actual cost of a container deposit scheme to Australians is zero - assuming they collect they recycle and collect their deposit. This is because the “handling fee” of a few cents per container - which attracts the private sector to invest - is subsidised by the unredeemed 20% of deposits, the sale of the used containers to re-processors and the interest earned on these two sums.

In April a consortium of global companies in the recycling industry outlined their interests in a national container deposit scheme at A$500M.

The most recent global analysis of container recycling and litter schemes by accounting firm PWC concluded found that deposit systems are furthermore more sustainable than the collection of one-way containers in curbside collection schemes. This analysis includes the transportation of used containers, whether for refilling or recycling.

There is no proposal in Australia for a return to reusable containers, although this would be the optimum carbon and sustainability outcome. Germany and the Netherlands both use reusable container schemes, where sturdy plastic and glass bottles are refilled around 20 times before binning.

While reusable containers may be the optimum for saving on carbon, even recycling is better than nothing. For instance, O-I, the largest glass bottle manufacturer in the world states that, “Every 10 percent of recycled glass used in production results in an approximate 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions and energy savings of about 3 percent”. Glass manufacturers do so by literally turning the temperature of their blast furnaces down when used glass is being processed.

Far from hurting the recycling industry, container deposit schemes and roadside recycling can sit side-by-side, and in fact help each other. We shouldn’t be talking about getting rid of container deposit when it’s the best thing we’ve got.