Opinion: we risk bottling DRS without a transition phase

Nick Taylor
Nick Taylor is a real estate partner at law firm Addleshaw Goddard. Here he analyses the wider impacts of the Deposit Return Scheme for Scottish business.

Does Scotland have the bottle to successfully introduce its Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) while simultaneously appeasing a groundswell of business unrest?

At Addleshaw Goddard, we continue to work closely with retail clients who are carefully monitoring the progress of DRS legislation that’s inexorably coming over the horizon. Indeed, it feels like an entire sector is collectively holding its breath.

With the Scottish scheme following an accelerated delivery timeline, the expected start date of April 2021 is an ambitious one by anyone’s yardstick – and it’s increasingly clear that there are several major business challenges associated with that.

The Scottish Government recently reaffirmed its plan to proceed with a scheme for the recycling of PET plastic and glass bottles as well as aluminium and steel cans between 50ml and three litres in size.

That represents a very complex, multi-faceted approach, with the inclusion of glass in particular being routinely cited as a significant hurdle for businesses to overcome due to its weight and the scope of equipment required to recycle it.

There are far-reaching implications for how you roll out such a nuanced, wide-ranging scheme, but so far Holyrood has adopted what appears to be a one-size fits all approach.

While the scheme undoubtedly has laudable intentions and has been hailed as a crucial step forward by recycling campaigners with some even saying it doesn’t go far enough, my experience so far has been of retailers and producers expressing dismay over extra costs, practical difficulties, and inflexible demands on their operation.

We also keep seeing the government proudly talking up Scotland’s pioneering ‘transition’ to a circular economy – but crucially, any notion of introducing a transition period for those having to implement it has remained absent from the rhetoric.

At the moment, there is no such period planned during which implementation can be carefully rolled out. Essentially, as things currently stand, retailers and producers are going to have to get out of the blocks immediately and simply hope they are running in the right direction – or, according to the draft proposals, face sanctions and penalties.

Whether that remains the case once the final regulations are published is another matter of course, but at this crucial crossroads, I can’t believe the government aren’t pacifying a lot of vocal critics by allowing a phasing in of DRS implementation.

My feeling is that retailers must continue to apply pressure and demand a significant transition period where teething problems can be identified and ironed out – or face the prospect of a chaotic and publicly damaging introductory phase.

Local retailers are already familiar with the concerns raised over the space required for a reverse vending machine and to store returns. However, there are wider issues to consider.

If consumers store up bottles at their home, they are likely to take them to the place that’s most convenient for them but that, in turn, will likely start to determine consumer choices.

Are they going to carry a bin bag full of containers to the corner shop, or are they going to drive to larger, out-of-town supermarkets where it’s easier and more convenient? I think those retailers who are in a strong position to offer the type of facilities which people will most often use will be placed at an unfair advantage.

There are also growing concerns that a flat rate levy regardless of container size will make multipacks of cans significantly more expensive, and similarly, that could influence consumer habits.

It’s thought that, faced with a £4.80 charge for a 24-can pack of soft drinks, consumers will switch to buying four two-litre bottles, thus increasing plastic waste and undoing one of the scheme’s key aims.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic that Scotland is stealing a march on DRS, but that ambition to lead the way in UK recycling habits shouldn’t come at the expense of a smooth, well-considered rollout.

Where recycling schemes are concerned, Scotland must learn to walk before it can run, and introducing a transition phase must be considered pivotal to its long-term success.