Container deposit laws past their use-by date

Despite the popularity, a national container deposit scheme isn’t the right way to clean up our litter. Flickr/nist6ss

The old-fashioned approach to recycling in which consumers pay a redeemable deposit on drink containers is popular among all kinds of people, from Greenpeace members to traditional Coalition voters. But this nostalgia-fuelled enthusiasm isn’t a good reason to suspend sound judgement. The truth is container deposit schemes are outdated and ineffective, and it’s time we consigned the idea to history’s dustbin.

The Ministerial Council of Environmental Ministers has been considering the idea of container deposit legislation for some time, and in 2011 commissioned an examination of container deposit options in the Packaging Impacts Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (PICRIS). It shows that in reality container deposit laws are clumsy, expensive and not worth the bother.

Litter, the problem container deposit was initially aimed to address, has been joined by another scourge, carbon. Policy responses on packaging must deal with both issues. Container deposit laws were first adopted when glass containers were prevalent as they could be washed and reused. However rewashing is wasteful of water and carting the heavy packaging around is carbon intensive. Modern beverage containers have been made lighter to reduce carbon emissions in both transport and manufacture. They can never be reused.

Thus the concerns of carbon warriors might be at odds with litter activists. This is the core of the problem. Container deposit laws may reduce small amounts of litter but they are a distraction from efforts to cut carbon emissions.

Australia has developed industrial-style responses to packaging and other waste. Kerbside recycling and large sorting facilities are able to deal with it. The waste recovery and recycling systems are huge, integrated and increasingly efficient. ABS statistics demonstrate a strong commitment to recycling in Australia, particularly in urban and regional centres.

Our current recycling system, hadn’t yet been implemented when South Australia’s container deposit scheme was introduced. The legislation may have been appropriate then but now it would only serve to undermine our successful recycling system.

A study for the Municipal Association of Victoria demonstrated that a container deposit system would have negative financial implications for kerbside recycling. This makes it a potential form of environmental vandalism.

The evidence from the Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index is that South Australia (5.36 litres of litter per 1,000m) is dirtier than Victoria (3.99 litres of litter per 1,000m) and on that point, the whole argument for container deposit laws should fall.

What the index also demonstrates is that beverage containers are only a small part of the packaging stream (25%) and a minuscule part of the total waste stream (4%). We live in a world where packaging has exploded beyond just beverages.

Because a container deposit scheme only hits part of the waste stream it misses out on the main problems (cigarette butts, plastic and takeaway food litter). Victoria’s relative cleanliness shows that a holistic approach is better than a one-dimensional hammer that misses the nut.

Australians are strongly committed to kerbside recyling, which is cheaper and less carbon intensive than CDL. Flickr/QueensLandgarbagefan

A recent peer-reviewed study demonstrated that while container deposit laws would reduce litter by 6%, they would also cost 10 to 20 times more than other strategies such as an advanced disposal fee paid by the consumer at purchase or just increasing recycling at dining and retail outlets. Improving our resource recovery performance at hospitality and retail would cost A$13 per tonne of packaging versus A$2040 per tonne for container deposit law. A container deposit scheme would cost an estimated A$680 million.

Such a scheme also requires the duplication of recycling trucks, as waste with a deposit must be separated from the rest of the waste stream. This increases the carbon miles of waste treatment and would require a vast bureaucracy tracking down every deposit.

The expense of a national container deposit scheme would also be shifted onto families’ food bills. We have been told of one beverage manufacturer who adds 14.5 cents per unit on to their produce in SA. (This additional cost is corroborated by research for an industry group that put the additional cost per annum at $173 to $437 depending on household income.) This regressive charge on families should be resisted. South Australians unwittingly pay this but in a more transparent national debate, it would be manifest. Container deposit would prove less efficient and fair than other systems.

One must beware of ideas drawn from the past. Nostalgia is selective: our enthusiasm for container deposit takes a rosy-eyed view of how things used to be, without looking at the way they are now. Container deposit is very popular but it is problematic in ways that its advocates refuse to acknowledge. It’s a rubbish idea.