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Deposit Return Scheme 'We are finally seeing the value in the small everyday products we use'

Colin O’Byrne of Voice Ireland outlines why the new scheme matters and how it will work.

IF YOU EVER happen to look at old black and white photos of Dublin town, you can’t help but notice the tram lines criss-crossing some of the streets.

Nothing unusual about that, you might think, but the thing is, those tram lines don’t belong to the LUAS.

No, they were laid down for a tram service that began in the 1870s and ran until the late 1940s, by which time they were considered a relic of the past and not fitting for a modern Ireland. The tramlines were all pulled up. Six decades and nearly a billion euros later, trams were re-introduced.

In 1799, A&R Thwaites in Dublin announced that they would pay two shillings for every dozen glass bottles that were returned to them. Closer to the present time, many of us remember the milkman delivering the morning’s bainne in glass bottles. The following morning, the empty bottles would be collected and taken away to be washed and then used again.

Why were these glass bottles collected for re-use? Because society realised the value of these containers, it made sense to take care of them and to keep them in circulation for as long as possible. 

Moving forward

The point that’s being made here is that progress is not always linear, sometimes we have to go backwards to go forward. After generations without one, we now realise and appreciate the value of a tram system in Dublin. After decades of increasing pollution due to increasing amounts of plastic bottles and cans, we also realise the importance of doing something to try to put a stop to it. Step forward, Ireland’s Deposit Return Scheme.

Exact figures are difficult to come by, but it is safe to assume that, each and every year in Ireland, hundreds of millions of plastic bottles and cans are not collected for recycling in Ireland. That means that all of these containers end up as litter, in landfill or as fuel for incinerators.

By anyone’s understanding of the word, that is a shocking waste. It is a waste of precious, limited resources. And it’s a waste of everyone’s time, money and energy because it is avoidable.

What the deposit return scheme will do, in effect, is to place a bounty on each container. This bounty incentivises us to return these containers so that we can claim our deposit. Just think of bottles and cans as money, only it’s money shaped as empty bottles and cans! You can be sure that with that bounty on their heads, these containers will be treated with an elevated sense of consideration once the scheme is up and running.

One of the mantras that we live by in VOICE is that it’s the product we want, not the packaging. When I buy a bar of chocolate, I’m not going to eat the wrapper. Sure, it’s handy to identify the product and it keeps it clean but it’s the chocolate I’m after, I don’t want the packaging. You can think of it like this: you go to the supermarket and put a euro in to get the loan of a trolley. You fill up your trolley and then, when you’re finished, you return the trolley to its station and get your euro back — job done. You’ve got the items you wanted, you got your euro back and you’re not tasked with looking after the trolley anymore either. It’s a concept that makes sense to all of us, and it’s the same concept that applies to the deposit return scheme.

Circular what?

We’re not doing this in isolation either. At the time of writing, 14 other European countries have a deposit return scheme up and running with many more on the way. The reason for this is largely down to the EU’s Single Use Plastic Directive. One aspect of this directive mandates that each country must have a 90% collect rate for recycling plastic bottles by the end of the decade. They don’t mandate that each country should begin their own deposit return scheme, it just so happens that no one has come up with a more effective mechanism for getting to that 90% goal.

Another important aspect worth mentioning is its relation to the circular economy. That term has become more prevalent in public conversation over the last couple of years, but I’m not convinced that it makes much sense to the casual listener. In fact, I tend to think that once someone hears the word “economy” in a sentence, most of their brain switches to standby. In very simple terms, the circular economy means that we’re aware that there’s only so much stuff on this planet, and so we need to get better at looking after that stuff; making sure it’s designed to last longer, that it can be repaired, that we appreciate the value of this precious, limited stuff on our precious, limited planet.

The deposit return scheme will serve as an entry point to the circular economy. When you collect your bottles and cans, return them to the shop and get your deposit back, you are playing your part in making sure that these materials are being collected for recycling. You are bringing the circular economy to life. And it’s not some highfalutin new ‘green’ claptrap you’re engaged with, just a common-sense approach to ensuring we collect as much plastic and aluminium containers as possible for recycling. What’s not to like?

We recently engaged RedC to conduct a survey, gauging opinions about the upcoming scheme. Out of all the data we got, one result really stood out to me: support for the scheme was exactly the same from rural respondents as it was from urban ones. In these times of noisy culture wars and all caps rage, it’s heartening to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from on this fair isle, we can all coalesce around one good idea. After this? Well, maybe we’ll go back to the future and channel our inner 1799 selves as we look toward re-use but, for the time being, let’s enjoy the start of this new chapter.

Colin O’Byrne is Project Manager with VOICE Ireland and led the Return for Change campaign to raise awareness about Ireland’s deposit return scheme.

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