Devolved governments need to collaborate and recognise their shared ambition – and the shared benefits – of an integrated, well-designed DRS, writes Polytag CEO Alice Rackley

The UK’s Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) has been besieged with delays since it was introduced in Defra’s 2018 Resource and Waste Strategy as a credible way to address the linear nature of our packaging economy.

That was three years ago, when many countries around the world already had operational DRS in place. With recent news that DRS strategies from both Defra and the Scottish Government are yet again delayed  – Scotland until July 2023 and England, Wales and Northern Ireland currently date-less – we can say with certainty that as a nation, we are very late to the DRS party.

While Covid can take much of the blame for these delays, the fact that none of the UK’s devolved nations are likely to have an operational DRS in place until 2023 at the earliest is a wholly frustrating situation.

However, not only are the proposed DRS strategies delayed; they don’t even align on scope. This issue – thankfully acknowledged in the Scottish Government’s Gateway Review to the DRS (December 2021) – presents a legislative headache for businesses across the UK, and ‘weakens the justification of a Scotland-only system’.

Not only should a UK-wide DRS help close the loop on our packaging economy, it will, if well-designed, tackle the UK’s stagnating recycling rates and the escalating cost of recycled PET (rPET) which last month reached a new, record high.

With the forthcoming Plastic Packaging Tax (set to kick in this April) likely to keep rPET prices elevated, the case for an effective DRS that can help boost rPET supplies is clear. 

Devolved strategies out of sync

The incompatibility of the Scottish DRS with the rest of the UK is a crucial flaw in the UK’s current plans, and a point business and trade associations have long been urging governments to recognise. Without joined up thinking, the overall efficacy of the UK’s future DRS will be severely undermined.

Devolved governments must use the DRS delay as an opportunity to get back to the drawing board and create an integrated, UK-wide DRS. They must use every tool in the box to do this. Working collaboratively will be essential. However, a second approach will – I believe – be critical to our DRS success; the adoption of a new generation digital DRS technologies.

Digital DRS: a technology for the 21st Century

Over the last few years, a new breed of transformative digital DRS technologies have emerged. Digital DRS technologies are well suited to the UK’s resource and waste system for two reasons: the existence of a fully functioning kerbside waste and recycling collection service across the country, and – post Covid – consumers’ familiarity with QR codes as an identification and information sharing software.

Digital DRS technologies such as Polytag require brands to apply a unique ID code to every piece of packaging that is in-scope for the DRS. This code enables the packaging to be ‘tracked and traced’ using app-based technology on mobile phones and smart-camera devices throughout the circular supply chain; tagged packaging can be returned for recycling by households through existing kerbside waste collection services, whilst still enabling them to claim their deposit back in a digital wallet linked to the app on their mobile phone.

Such an approach to DRS could completely transform existing plans for UK devolved governments which are based on a successful but somewhat dated 1970’s reverse vending machine (RVM) model.

Not only would a digital DRS system integrate well with existing kerbside collection services, it would enable local councils to retain the value of the collected packaging material at the MRF, securing much needed revenue for investment into local recycling infrastructure. 

Carbon and financial savings are also key features of a digital DRS, as they reduce the need for new RVM purchase, infrastructure, and logistics networks. A recent report from Resource Futures suggested digital DRS could reduce the cost of implementation by as much as £3.3bn over 11 years, compared to a RVM system model.

Digital DRS technologies offer a simpler model for consumers, too, (a key requirement if we are to incentivise recycling) by providing correct recycling instructions and incentives on consumers’ mobile devices. Digital DRS also remove the need for consumers travel to RVM’s to do their recycling – be it by car, foot or public transport – a benefit which is as relevant to those in rural settings as it is to those living in urban environments.

Seizing the digital DRS opportunities

The UK is at a crossroads when it comes to DRS. Late to implement then scuppered by Covid, years of delay and fragmented decision-making threatens to create a legislative headache rather than a world-leading DRS.

Devolved governments need to collaborate and recognise their shared ambition – and the shared benefits – of an integrated, well-designed DRS. They must also recognise that digital DRS technologies can help them achieve this.

It is time to embrace the technologies available to us and create a DRS fit for the 21st Century. As reports on the global plastic crisis regularly inform us, we’ve got no time to lose.

Alice Rackley is CEO at packaging tracing specialist Polytag.


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