National container deposit scheme crushed by Australian Senate

Plastic bottles often end up on the beach where the plastic can remain for decades, harming sea life and the fish we eat. senderweb/Flickr

For the past 30 years, South Australians have lived in a state with a “container deposit scheme”. This means on small bottles or cans of water, soft drink, juice or alcohol, consumers pay a 10c deposit which is then refunded when they return the empty container. The Northern Territory introduced a similar scheme at the beginning of this year. However, last week, a bill which proposed rolling out a national scheme was quietly crushed in the Australian Senate.

Only the Herald Sun reported its demise, repeated in Business Spectator. The latest article in the Sydney Morning Herald for “container deposit” is from last month saying “councils in NSW could save $62 million a year on recycling and rubbish collection if a ‘cash for cans’ scheme was introduced”, whilst food and beverage organisations argue it would be costly and ineffective.

Senator Xenophon reflects in his address to the Senate that the scheme has “98% support in South Australia” and a national scheme would have prevented 600,000 tonnes of waste going to landfill each year. Given that each Australian sends nearly one tonne of waste to landfill each year – two to three kilograms per day adding to almost 1000 kg every year for each person in Australia – this would equate to avoiding the total waste to landfill from all of Tasmania.

The bill was introduced by the Australian Greens and defeated by Labor siding with the Coalition. Labor’s Senator Urquhart says the intent of the bill has merit. However, she goes on to say: “This bill proposes a [national] government-run scheme that would be a different mechanism over and above the two existing arrangements [in SA and NT]. Logically, this only leads to increased regulatory complexity as well as costs to industry and the community.” She says that it would “undo good work done at the COAG table”.

Whilst household recycling rates of beverage containers from kerbside collections are good, the costs fall to ratepayers instead of big drinkers. It’s not a new concern. One of us (Stuart White) at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS was commissioned over a decade ago in NSW to undertake an independent review of Container Deposit Legislation. More recently, Boomerang Alliance have researched the topic extensively and shown the potential benefits for recycling other goods that could occur by setting up drop-off machines across cities.

The UTS review showed that recovery rates of used containers can double with a deposit and refund scheme, mainly due to collection of the containers consumed away from home. Of course this represents an additional cost, just as council ratepayers bear a significant cost already as a result of kerbside recycling. However, there are offsetting benefits, principally from the reduced environmental cost of producing new containers from raw materials rather than recycling used materials.

The beverage and packaging industry was very happy to support the findings of the Independent Assessment of Kerbside Recycling in Australia which concluded that, despite the financial subsidy from local Councils, kerbside recycling provided a net economic benefit due to this reduced environmental cost. What is good for the kerbside goose, according to the industry lobbyists, is not good for the container deposit gander.

A container deposit scheme also reduces litter and street bin collection costs as people collect and return unwanted empty containers. And it’s not just our streets which benefit. A recent program on ABC’s Catalyst showed a CSIRO study on the amount of plastics washed up on Australian beaches. Plastic drink bottles thrown away onto a street get washed out to the ocean in the rain and the plastic persists for decades. It then either directly harms sea life or breaks into tiny pieces which concentrate toxins in the fish which we then eat. The lowest count for plastics of beaches surveyed so far was in South Australia. Is this a result of its geographical position or the community’s support for a container deposit scheme?

Usefully, Australia has a National Waste Policy: Less Waste, More Resources. In principle, this recognises that in the decades ahead, learning how to do more with less resources will become second nature. Critically, it’s lacking data for good evidence-based policy on waste and political will as shown in the Senate. Linked to the National Waste policy, Product Stewardship legislation has been introduced (and passed) to ensure computers and TVs are recycled. If this isn’t too hard to do nationally, how can it be that legislation to recycle cans and bottles escapes our abilities?