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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.

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46 Comments sorted by

  1. Alex Serpo

    Garbologist

    God why is anyone arguing about this? It's unbelievably painful. Here is the short answer;

    1) Everything that gets made in the economy goes to one of two places - into resource recovery or into the environment. There is nowhere else it can go.

    2) Therefore we need an end of life plan for <i>every product that gets made, or has been made</i>. While people argue about cans the more proactive of us are setting up recovery systems for major waste streams like transport ships, aeroplanes or rainway tracks. Try to think big. Or at least bigger than a can/bottle.

    3) If a CDS was an efficient way to recover packaging it would have already happened years ago. As it turns out, its mediocore. But either way, who cares? A CDS neither addresses our litter problems (because the most destructive forms of litter aren't covered) nor our resource recovery options (because resource recovery is about tonnes, not tiny items like cans or bottles).

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Serpo

      Alex, did you read the article? There has been a CDS operating in SA for decades - and it works. And we all care.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Alex Serpo

      Alex, I think you're guilty of the 'don't do anything other than the biggest thing' fallacy. Yes, a CDS won't deal with the big stuff like ships or electronics or whatever. It will deal with containers. That's what it is designed to do: no more; no less.

      I think the fallacy lies in thinking that it's a linear, one-thing-at-a-time process. But there's nothing about instigating a CDS that prevents us from paying attention to all the other myriad waste and recycling issues.

      I suppose there might be SOME point where you were burning up all the political capital and all the social and economic resources available to tackle waste and recycling, but mostly it's an industry-by-industry issue and any number of issues can be managed simultaneously.

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    3. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      When I was a kid, CDS operated in NSW, and, guess what? Very little litter was around the streets in the form of glass bottles. Us kids made a fortune from them. Unfortunately, these days, kids seem to require a much bigger return in order to get off their fat bums and pick up bottles!

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    4. Christian Slattery

      Student

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix you make a fair point about using specific programs to deal with specific problems. I would however disagree with your assertion that "there's nothing about instigating a CDS that prevents us from paying attention to all the other myriad waste and recycling issues.

      As the article above outlines, there is considerable cost in building the required infrastructure for a CDS. Disregarding the issue as to whether consumers will pay for this, the adjacent point is that under a CDS business wears the costs. I suppose this may appeal to some environmental groups who take the view that any cost imposed on big 'evil' companies is a good thing, but I personally disagree.

      Surely the aim should be to work with business to encourage more recycling of ALL waste. It seems to me that spending over $500 million on a CDS is a misallocation of funds, that would be better spent on programs that target the entire waste stream, not just the 18% which is beverage containers.

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Christian Slattery

      Christian, it's not just a crude 'business is evil and should bear the cost' straw man.

      The fact is that all containers contain non-essential and very often unhealthy products, when clean, healthy tap water is available almost everywhere in Australia (and you can ge tyourself a re-usable drink bottle for the other occasions) - therefore if someone like Coca Cola Amatil is forced to pay the costs of setting up a CDS and passes a fair bit of that cost onto the consumer, all we're realy doing is…

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    6. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Mark Amey

      Exactly - how the hell else do you expect them to pay for their smokes (well, that's how we used to, anyway!)

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    7. Christian Slattery

      Student

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Fair enough, good to hear your views. For the record I did not intend to direct the 'evil' business criticism at you, but at some (not all) environmental groups whose behaviour I lament.

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    8. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Amey

      Too true Mark. I grew up in NSW and well remember 'scabbing' for drink bottles to earn a few pennies (and cents) in order to buy lollies at the school canteen.

      In SA. kids have been replaced with homeless and disadvantaged people who travel around with bikes and big blanket bags collecting all the bottles and cans that people dispose of.

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    9. Alex Serpo

      Garbologist

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Mike et al. I appreciate you're trying to engage with this issue but I still think you're missing the point. So I'll explain more carefully. A CDS is about two different things - resource recovery and reducing litter.

      In regard to resource recovery a CDS will reduce your waste footprint by about 1/1000th or less. Do the maths yourself: your total cans and bottles waste output / your total waste output * their resource recovery efficiency. I don't begrudge progress but I feel that more serious…

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    10. Alex Serpo

      Garbologist

      In reply to Christian Slattery

      Hey wait ... "18% which is beverage containers..." um, what? Australian generates more than 50 million tonnes of waste materials per annum. Are you trying to argue that there are 9 million tonnes of cans and bottles produced per year?

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  2. Christian Slattery

    Student

    Don, I would be interested your views on how best to compare South Australia and Victoria's litter quantities. Some of your criticism at the KABN Litter Index seem fair, but offering anecdotal evidence as a counter measure is a little weak.

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    1. Will Hardy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Christian Slattery

      In Germany, an empty bottle will last 0-3 minutes on the street before being claimed by someone for the deposit. Berlin is by no means a clean and tidy city, but empty bottles have been removed from the problem.

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    2. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Christian Slattery

      Overall litter rates are slightly higher in SA than Victoria. But in the categories that are covered by SAs CDS (metal and glass) SA litter levels are lower than Victoria's.

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  3. John Rutherford

    Worker

    Pardon me for being narrow minded but I cannot see how there could be any arguement AGAINST any sort of recycling. It`s a no brainer regardless of the "costs".We DO not own a thing on this planet,we are simply borrowing it from future generations and they will be well within their rights to hold us in contempt for the way we treat that which we shall hand to them.....................

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    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to John Rutherford

      Recycling containers may be inefficient in terms of the environmental and the carbon footprint of the whole process. Recycling means paying for and storing containers, transportation back to the right factory, cleaning and checking for defects and the risks of contamination. A new lightweight container might have less environmental impact even including the cost of the waste plant. That's the argument against recycling.

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    2. Rob Kelman

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi Colin, check the PWC report that is linked in Dons article. It will give you the analysis you are looking for on carbon and other metrics from recycling. RMIT also did work some years ago - in both cases Refillable containers are the optimum and recycling also delivers carbon and other savings, including from transportation of the materials.

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Fair question, Colin, and I think Rob has largely answered your concern.

      My understanding is that the 'damage reduction' of recycling, after all factors, including transport and processing, have been acounted for, is variable but always positive. The best case I know of is recycling aluminium cans, where I believe you're talking as much as a 95% saving. Things like glass bottles are nowhere near as good as this, but the purely environmental cost/benefit would still be quite strongly in the positive…

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    4. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      I've mentioned before that in Kuching Sarawak Malaysia where I live, guys come round and pay cash for old newspaper. (Not sure how much- I'm happy to give it away.) It's really good when recycling is environmentally sound and profitable too in a low income society- minimum wage AUS300 per month.

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  4. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Ah yes, here's their article

    http://theconversation.com/container-deposit-laws-past-their-use-by-date-15234

    It all looked a bit fishy at the time - Still does, given the drivers to make it happen below

    the US scene .......
    “Cans are an obvious green packaging choice because it takes 95 percent less energy to produce a can from recycled material, resulting in significant energy, emissions and resource savings. The amount of energy saved just from recycling cans in 2011 is equal to the energy equivalent of over 17 million barrels of crude oil. That’s the amount of oil needed to fuel more than 1 million vehicles on the road for 12 months…What’s more, these savings can be realized over and over again…

    http://blog.alcircle.com/?p=126

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  5. none at all

    none

    Just a few short observations:
    We lived in Canada during the 1960s, where there was a deposit on beer bottles and the sturdy cartons in which they came. The common practice was to return the empties in the carton and claim the refund. There was very little litter.
    We sailed across the Pacific in the early 1970s, when the bottle deposit on Hinano beer was approximately the same as the cost of the contents. We saw no discarded containers there.
    Back in Australia, we quickly learned to wear shoes…

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  6. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I'll put aside some of the author's incorrect statements such as "a cigarette butt – which will break down in 1-5 years": my understanding is that the filter of a cigarette butt can take 20 or more years to break down as they are now among the most common items of litter found on beaches, even though the marine environment is pretty harsh.
    In theory, CDSs seems to make sense for all the reasons outlined in the article. In practice, however, the litter stream is complex and costly. Addressing each…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      It would be fascinating to see a comprehensive environmental and economic cost/benefit analysis of the alternative approach Bernire raises in comparison with our current system augmented with CDS.

      I know some of the Scandinavian countries have been running waste systems of this type for many years. I wonder if there would be sufficient suitable data available for a useful comparison?

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    2. Rob Kelman

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Hi Bernie, residuals being burnt has some utility. though a review of WMAA hierarchy protocols would suggest extraction of useable materials first. the point (along with eradication of this problem litter) of CD is reprocessors get high grade materials for conversion back to bottles etc - SA used bottles get a at least 25-50% price premium because of the quality of the material. And CD is not expensive. the most recent RIS analysis suggests a national scheme would cost about $3 per person p.a..

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    3. Jay HR

      Student

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Just to clarify...

      In Japan most councils expect extensive sorting by citizens at the curb side. A normal weekly collection requires plastic to be sorted into recycling numbered categories (1-5), glass sorted by colour (clear, green, brown), paper is separated (newspapers/magazines, other), metals, batteries, and fresh kitchen waste are separated.

      Instructions are extensive and in smaller communities a senior citizen will volunteer on the morning of pick up to make sure it's all correct. I don't think it fits into the KISS system, although as a conscious raising tool, it probably works quite well.

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    4. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Jay HR

      It depends where in Japan you're talking about. Having come back from 3 weeks in Tokyo less than1 2 months ago, the details you provide are absolutely accurate in the suburb where we stayed for the first week. The second week however was completely different - everything appeared to go into the one rubbish bin for eventual burning to produce electricity.

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Jay HR

      Jay - I have a colleague who worked in Japan for several years and he loves telling stories of how even corporate CEOs took their stuff down to local depots on the weekend and sorted it, exactly as you note.

      He even remembers having been unable to distinguish two different types of brown sake bottles and tossing both types into one receptacle, only to get a stern lecture from a little old lady about not being lazy and taking the trouble to get it right!

      I suppose it's a matter of what works best in each society, but Japan does demonstrate that it's not innately impossible to do surprisingly detailed and accurate source sorting of waste.

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    6. Jay HR

      Student

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Agreed Bernie. Different Prefectures have different requirements. I would say most are very stringent. There is some irony in that you can by plastic rubbish bags for each of the categories.

      Also, and this is something you would know better than I, burning of plastics for fuel has released some pretty toxic carcinogens over Japan in the last 20 years.

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    7. Jay HR

      Student

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Got to be careful when disposing of the evidence Felix!

      To add to your point, if people are more aware of what they have to throw out or recycle, it might highlight the questionable need to consume in the first place.

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    8. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Jay HR

      Jay, my understanding is that there are new high temperature pyrolysis technologies which are being approved for operation in the UK and presumably elsewhere, such that air emissions are benign. The Pilbara region of WA has just had approval for a plant to be built burning domestic waste from Port Hedland and possibly Karratha to to produce electricity.
      To be honest, my main reason for wondering if there isn't a better way than CDSs and Japan-style sorting and recycling is that the local govt where I live is about to introduce a 3rd bin system for household wastes - recyclables collected fortnightly, general wastes collected fortnightly and organic green wastes to be collected weekly. Three bins cluttering up our front driveway and, while this next problem doesn't apply to my wife and I, nappies are general waste so I look forward to them being left in general waste bins for 2 weeks over summer. Not a great prospect for a developing tourist area!

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    9. Jay HR

      Student

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Thanks for the info on pyrolysis.

      Just wondering, how are baby nappies not recyclable/reusable? Baby poo must be practically harmless.

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    10. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Jay HR

      The local Shire has advised that nappies - soiled or otherwise - can't go into the recycling bin nor into the green waste bin for composting. I assume it's because the nappies take too long to break down and they contain human pathogens.

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    11. Jay HR

      Student

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Hmmm...interesting.

      Would it not be possible to design a new kind of nappy? Perhaps with a washable outer shell, a machine washable core and a disposable catchment pad? Not quite old skool, but focused on reuse rather than single use mentality. There must be the materials/technology.

      I cannot get the image of countless dirty nappies filling rubbish bins and garbage trucks out of my head.

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    12. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jay HR

      Yes, we had them when my kids were babies, they were cloth nappies, or, in those days, just called 'nappies'!

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  7. Fred Payne

    retired

    The drink and packaging industries opposition to the CDS is yet another instance of industries protecting themselves against increasing costs at the expense of the wider community.
    CDS schemes are not 100% efficient, and don't address wider pollution issues, but it would seem that where they are used they do reduce the quantity of these materials going into landfill and waterways and offer significant carbon reductions because of lower temperatures needed for remanufacturing processes.
    So if they are more efficient and more sustainable than curbside collection schemes, it would seem logical that CDS schemes should be adopted, at least as an interim measure while we develop 'end of life plans' for the other waste streams.

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  8. Peter McLean

    Chief Executive Officer at Keep Australia Beautiful

    Keep Australia Beautiful would like to clear up some facts regarding the National Litter Index. Saying it has the “same number of sites across all states” is blatantly incorrect. The bigger states have twice as many sites counted as smaller states such as the NT or Tasmania.

    No research is perfect, but the NLI is the best Australia has got when it comes to litter. We rely on consistent national research, not anecdotal evidence. The NLI states that beverage containers are still littered in South Australia.

    We have looked at the NLI data with cigarette butts removed, and the numbers of litter in each state don’t change significantly. We count by item, as well as by volume, so saying we treat cigarette butts the same as beverage containers is also incorrect.

    The NLI is designed to compare states to the National average, not compare state by state.

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    1. Rob Kelman

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to Peter McLean

      It is true as KAB contend that there is a lack of rigorous analysis of littering in Australia and the national litter index may be the best available. Though it’s methodological flaws limit its ability to be used for much more than a snap shot.

      While Tas, ACT and NT are treated as smaller states with half the sites surveyed as the bigger states, SA is grouped equally with the larger NSW and Victoria, so skewing the findings of litter rates between states – though as Peter points out the NLI is…

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  9. Peter Rutherford

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    As I walk to and from the shopping centre on a weekend, I generally pick up enough litter to fill one to two shopping bags. This litter lies less than one kilometer from the marine environment. As I do this, I think about the learned articles in the conversation and wonder when some bright academic will publish a paper about the psychology of the pigs who chose to throw away containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts etc, wherever they happen to finish drinking, eating or smoking.
    When I was…

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  10. Dick Gross

    Tutor in Climate Change at University of Melbourne

    Well now I have seen it all. A litter champion is an apologist for litter from ciggie butts. This apologia indicates the weakness of the argument. The advocates of CDL eschew the holistic approach. They obsess about one small fraction of the litter stream and happily spend so much money on that bottled solution that they must trivialise other more important litter fractions such as plastic bags, ciggie butts and takeaway food litter. They are so concerned with beverages that they would happily spend…

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  11. Dick Gross

    Tutor in Climate Change at University of Melbourne

    Apologies for the lateness of my reply to this article but we had a surgical emergency (happily resolved) which delayed my reply a few minutes earlier.
    Dick

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  12. Rachel van Someren
    Rachel van Someren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    logged in via Facebook

    Germany & Netherlands are mentioned for reuse schemes. When I visited Denmark (especially the Carlsberg Brewery) in 1990 they had such a scheme in place. Was required by law I believe. And each bottle was washed and reused at least 10 times. It can't have got harder.

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