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Walking along any beach in the UK, it is easy to see the impact that humans have on the environment. Before, the only bottles seen on the beach were ones containing messages. Now, it is far more common to see a discarded plastic energy drink. And it is not only a common sight at the beach: town centres, canals, and even the British countryside also suffer from being littered with bottles. And although they are almost universally recyclable, plastic bottles  usually have a life expectancy of around 450 years, highlighting the long-term costs of failure. 

Although there have been sizeable increases in recycling rates in Britain since the start of the millennium, much more work needs to be done. Only 74% of plastic drinks bottles get recycled in the UK, meaning that there are still over 130,000 tonnes of plastic bottles that are not recycled, occupying landfills or polluting the environment. Littering has damaging economic and environmental consequences, whilst landfill pollutes the landscape and can cause health problems. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive agglomeration of waste plastics in the Pacific Ocean, is a prime example of the major damage to animals and the ecosystem it causes. 

Part of the problem is that waste collection is a devolved matter to local councils, leading to a recycling lottery that depends on council resources, waste disposal facilities, or cooperation with other councils. There is a UK-wide strategy for plastic recycling, but it takes a long-term view, aiming to reduce plastic waste by 2050, whilst action is needed now, as the problems associated with littering and landfill are already having major impacts, as mentioned previously.  

One simple way to prevent littering and promote the recycling of plastic bottles is through a deposit return scheme. Schemes like this have been proven effective in many situations, from Norway to the US. In Norway, for example, a small deposit is added to the price of each bottle or container, which can then be returned after use to a shop, resulting in the consumer getting the deposit back. This has led to a rate of plastic bottle recycling upwards of 95%. Reverse vending machines, where bottles are returned and their barcode scanned, allow Norwegians to efficiently get their deposit back, with little bureaucracy.  Glass bottles, which never degrade naturally, are also often included in similar schemes, to promote their reuse and recycling. 

The UK has a history of deposit schemes, with glass bottles being recycled until the 1980s when PET became cheaper and easier than having to sterilise and refill old bottles. The Scottish government has also put in place a similar scheme, in which a 20p deposit will be placed on plastic and glass bottles from July 2022.  For England to have a similar scheme, Westminster must take control. Proposals have been mooted for a while, with a public consultation in 2019 suggesting that the scheme is due to start in 2023

However, the bill is in the committee stage at the moment and therefore it would be nice to see some action towards a scheme like this becoming reality. One of the key issues with the bill in its current form to have been suggested to committee is the lack of coordination between devolved nations and the central government. The potential for disparity between schemes, and therefore confusion amongst the general population and also manufacturers, is thus something that must be resolved within the current bill. 

All this would come with a cost if implemented in England. There was outcry when the Scottish proposals were put to the public as small businesses were worried they would be left with the large cost of installing reverse vending machines. However, by linking investment in these machines to an easily accessible grant, like the one announced for home insulation, this problem can easily be resolved, addressing the inhibitive cost.

We have already had one major success as a country in the war on plastic waste: plastic bags. A small increase in cost has caused a major shift in behaviour, with single-use plastic bag consumption falling by 86% in supermarkets. The British government has insisted that a major part of its post-COVID-19 plan will be to emphasise Britain’s green credentials. Hopefully, taking up arms against the highly polluting scourge of plastic bottles will be a part of this.

Robert is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.