Cash for containers: Effectively increasing recycling

by FM Media
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A container deposit system is the right way to go, according to JEFF ANGEL of Total Environment Centre. He explains why.

People remember the good old days when you would collect empty bottles and get a refund; and milk and beer bottles were reused. Then, in the 1970s, came the era of the convenient, throwaway drink container, leading to gross litter problems and wastage of resources. In 1975, a federal parliamentary inquiry called for a tax on one-way containers and retention of the refund system. But to no avail – except in South Australia.
For several decades South Australia has been the only state with a cash for containers or container deposit system (CDS), whereby consumers pay a 10-cent deposit that is refundable at local depots. Every month residents take their bottles and cans to be sorted manually – it’s now a well-entrenched practice that has almost 99 percent support and achieves over 80 percent recycling.
Then, last year, the Northern Territory introduced a similar scheme. It was challenged by Coca-Cola, Lion and Schweppes in the Federal Court and they won. However, after many months of negotiation with all the other states, it was agreed to reinstate the scheme via a new Commonwealth law. Now, in just 12 months, litter has been halved and recycling increased by 173 percent.
The Northern Territory win was a great boost to the national CDS campaign by the Boomerang Alliance of 27 groups, which began in 2003. The initial Coke court win enraged people as an anti-democratic action (after all the Northern Territory scheme had the unanimous support of the parliament); and it saw a conservative government selling the benefits of a CDS to other conservative state governments.
The national campaign wants to lift the convenience and efficiency of a container deposit scheme beyond the traditional drive-in single-suburban depot system. It is aimed at recycling the vast bulk of the eight billion drink containers that are currently landfilled or littered in Australia.

It is also promoting the use of reverse vending machines (RVM), which are a common feature overseas. They are basically big metal boxes in which you put your empty container. The box reads the barcode and checks the size and material via optical readers, spits it out the back end into separate materials (metal, plastic, glass colours) and crushes the containers. The consumer receives a voucher or EFT transfer for the equivalent deposit value. There’s a high degree of automation.
By reading the barcode of the bottle or can, the RVM can collate how many of a particular brand (as well as number of items and material type) have been returned. This makes it easy for the coordinator of the CDS to accurately work out how much money each brand redeems.
It is proposed to locate the RVMs in the car parks of shopping centres, so that returning drink containers becomes part of regular shopping trips, rather than having to make a separate trip to a distant depot. This is a bonus to shopping centres because the voucher is linked to the supermarket and overseas experience shows there is an increase in customer loyalty and sales. In some European centres there is competition between retailers to have a RVM connected to them.
The other big advantage is that crushing the container reduces transport costs (compared to the volume and trucks needed for uncrushed cans and bottles) and the material can be sent straight to a recycler.

Compare these multiple benefits to the alternative suggested by the big drinks companies – more bins paid for by drinks companies in commercial locations such as shopping centres, airports and sports grounds. It is a flawed approach for several reasons. The bins don’t separate the containers into materials, so another step in the recycling process is required later on; and they are often contaminated as they are mixed up with other putrescible material.
A CDS produces clean, high value, separated material – bins produce low value, contaminated material some of which still ends up in landfill. Keep Australia Beautiful (New South Wales) reports that its 2000 recycling bins have resulted in 1600 extra tonnes being collected. But, compare that to the additional 130,000 tonnes a CDS would collect in New South Wales.
The infrastructure for a CDS is more extensive, but the critical question is: what are the benefits and can it pay for itself? Several international waste and recycling companies recently visited Australia and committed to investing up to $500 million and creating 3500 new jobs if Australia has a national CDS. They can operate the system for profit and at a lower cost than the South Australia or Northern Territory systems, without any government or packaging industry subsidies.

There are a range of other social and financial benefits, including reducing the net cost of council kerbside collections (according to the last five independent reports to government) and a big boost to charity income. Beverage container litter will dramatically drop, particularly in the natural and aquatic landscape.
It’s notable that the bin alternative does not attack the main vectors of litter in our parks, streets, rivers and ocean. The CSIRO reports that there is far less drink container litter off South Australian waters than in the rest of the nation.
All the various pros and cons have been debated for some years now and, despite claims by the Food and Grocery Council that a CDS is a tax and unfounded cost of living impacts, over 80 percent of the public support cash for containers, according to Newspoll. Environment ministers are expected to make a decision on a national CDS by the end of the year.

Jeff Angel is executive director of Total Environment Centre.

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