Results from Wales’ first digital kerbside deposit return scheme (DRS) pilot, which ran in Conwy, North Wales over the summer, suggest consumers are ‘highly engaged’, with 97% of registered households returning at least one bottle over four weeks.
With lower deployment costs and consumers becoming better acquainted with scanning QR codes during the pandemic, kerbside DRS can be one of the most ‘effective ways of enabling the packaging circular economy and reducing litter’, according to a partnership between between technology supplier Polytag, the Welsh Government, Conwy Council, Ecosurety and Wrap Cymru.
Negating the need to return containers in person, the kerbside DRS pilot saw households receive six uniquely tagged Princes Gate mineral water bottles over a four-week period (covering June and July 2021).
During the joint initiative residents in Colwyn Heights, Conwy were asked to scan the bottles when placing them in their usual kerbside recycling containers, using a free app. The bottles were scanned again upon collection by Conwy County Borough Council’s household waste recycling team.
By using these new technologies we are one step closer to creating a truly circular economy
For each bottle scanned, householders received a digital token, each worth 20p. According to the partnership, the results should prove to Governments and brands that ‘consumers would be engaged in a scheme of this type’.
Over four weeks, nine in 10 (90%) registered households scanned four or more bottles, with 193 (73%) scanning all six.
Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, said: “This has been a really encouraging pilot project that we will learn from as we work towards rooting out waste and reusing as much as we can as part of our efforts to tackle climate change.
“Digital deposit return schemes, like this one deployed in Colwyn Heights, help local authorities, brands and regulators to monitor recycling rates, so they can better understand the habits of households. By using these new technologies we are one step closer to creating a truly circular economy.”
Digital vs conventional DRS
The Conwy pilot leveraged Wales-based start-up Polytag’s digital DRS ‘tag and trace’ technology. The recycling platform enables brands to describe the packaging, then to ‘tag’ their packaging at the point of manufacture, then, with the help of consumers, ‘trace’ it, so it can be isolated from the existing recycling waste stream and reprocessed in an optimal way to retain high value plastics and minimise downcycling. Consumers are required to scan a small QR-type code on a product’s packaging.
Traditional DRS are commonly based on a return-to-retailer model, with extensive use of reverse vending machines and separate DRS counting centres managing the flow of material from the consumer to the recycling plant.
Defra estimates a deployment cost of more than £6bn over 11 years and the partnership has questioned their convenience for users and retailers.
The partnership also says that DRS are ‘typically carbon intensive’ as they rely on households driving to a reverse vending machine and the manufacture and installation of the machines carries a large carbon footprint.
A digital kerbside DRS allows for more ‘extensive’ data to be drawn upon, the partnership says, and that by delivering ‘more transparency’ with the data, the scheme can help brands to accurately identify the plastic tax they are required to pay.
We firmly believe that kerbside-based collections are the most effective way to achieve real change whilst delivering significant benefits to brands
They argue a kerbside DRS is more convenient for households because they leverage the existing council kerb-side recycling processes, which increases engagement.
A kerbside DRS can also complement reverse vending machine DRS by offering households greater choice and flexibility in terms of how and when they recycle and is also compatible with existing infrastructure, according to the partnership.
Alice Rackley, CEO of Polytag, added: “As we move closer to implementing a nationwide DRS, it is vital that brands, retailers, government and technology suppliers work together to find the most convenient way for consumers to recycle containers.
“We firmly believe that kerbside-based collections are the most effective way to achieve real change whilst delivering significant benefits to brands. This has now been proven in two trials, the latest in Conwy, where engagement was 97%, and in Greasby on the Wirral where we saw 91% of tagged packaging successfully recycled.”
Consultation on the introduction of a deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is now closed, with the results expected to be announced later this year.