Glass issue is not clear cut

Antony Begley

The local retailing industry has a nasty habit of ending up on the wrong side of issues that are often portrayed to the world as straightforward moral dilemmas. The latest example is the inclusion of glass in the draft regulations for the forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme.

Much publicised studies showing that 85% of consumers want to include glass in a DRS are at best unhelpful because all they serve to do is reduce a complex, multi-faceted debate down to a simple question: do you want to save the planet or do you not?

The same basic principle applies to issues like the national minimum wage. That debate has been boiled down to another, similar question: do you think workers should be paid a good wage or do you not?

Unfortunately, in the real world, challenges of this type aren’t overcome by simply wanting things to be better. There is a reality to deal with. Like it or not, we are where we are – and we can’t miraculously fix everything overnight by deciding that everybody should get paid another £3 an hour or by including glass in a DRS because we want to recycle as many containers as possible.

Those are both commendable aims – and I would suggest that the vast majority of retailers out there completely agree with paying a good wage and getting recycling rates as high as possible – but unlike consumers or the Scottish Government, retailers have to operate within a commercial and practical reality. Make staff too expensive to employ and you’ll see stores close left and right and unemployment rates increase – and that’s exactly what’s happening. The latest PWC data shows that 2,870 British stores closed in the first half of 2019. ONS figures for May to July showed Scottish unemployment rose by 19,000 over that period.

Include glass in a DRS when the infrastructure simply isn’t there yet to handle it and the consequences could be just as dire.

Putting commercial concerns to one side, there are many very significant practical problems with including glass, not least the fact that Viridor, the only company that can currently recycle glass in Scotland, has already said that glass is ‘not a fit’ for the DRS and it is simply not ‘practical’ to include it. Then there are all the fundamental problems with the Scottish c-store network. Sixty per cent of convenience stores don’t have room for an automated DRS machine that includes glass, cans and PET – so they will have no choice but to manually handle them. Glass is heavy, it breaks, it’s dangerous to handle, it takes up lots of space that retailers don’t have.

All these issues are entirely valid and have nothing to do with putting profit before the planet, even if they are unpalatable for the Scottish Government. Yet there are alternative solutions available, most obviously through better use of kerbside recycling. Postponing the inclusion of glass until a second phase would at least allow the industry the chance to build the requisite infrastructure while bedding-in the cans and PET system.

Antony Begley's signature
Antony Begley, Publishing Director