A technical solution for DDRS exists and should be implemented

Digital DRS

CEO of Polytag, Alice Rackley explains how policy decisions on digital deposit return schemes (DDRS) don’t reflect the technological possibilities available today.

A deposit return scheme (DRS) has long been earmarked as the policy which will finally help reverse years of stagnating recycling rates in the UK.

There is little doubt that if the government is to make meaningful strides towards a circular economy – where resources are protected and kept in use for as long as possible and waste is minimised – the implementation of this legislation is essential.

It needn’t be repeated that a DRS for single-use drinks containers is key to achieving a circular economy, and ergo, reaching net zero by 2050.

But while a DDRS solution has remained part of the conversation, its delivery has stagnated. The most recent statement from resource and waste minister Rebecca Pow MP claimed a “scalable technical solution does not yet exist” and “won’t for several years”.

Of course, the government would say this – the legislation that the consultation is founded upon, and subsequently, the conversations being had at policy level, are based on work done 12 to 18 months ago. In simple terms, the decisions being published now simply don’t reflect where we are today.

The legislation that the consultation is founded upon, and subsequently, the conversations being had at policy level, are based on work done 12 to 18 months ago.

Now, new technologies, including the ability to print unique-every-time QR codes at scale and the development of UV tag reading technology, are providing irrefutable evidence that a DDRS is more than feasible and more importantly, scalable.

UK retail giants Ocado Retail and Co-op are already enjoying the benefits of never-before-seen data and access to packaging lifecycle data through Polytag’s serialised QR codes.

To date, as part of the Ocado Digital Deposit Return Scheme Pilot, Polytag has placed three million unique-every-time QR codes on Ocado’s best-selling milk bottles up and down the UK, affording the brand ground-breaking insights to inform its sustainability strategies and, more importantly, increase recycling rates.

Elsewhere, back in 2021, our DDRS pilot in North Wales garnered an incredible engagement rate of 97%, with 90% of households scanning at least four out of six bottles.

Alice Rackley Polytag CEO
Polytag CEO Alice Rackley the company’s DDRS pilot in North Wales garnered an engagement rate of 97% in 2021.

Even Ocado Retail’s consumer survey, which looked into consumers’ recycling habits and the practicality of a DDRS, found just 44% of respondents would be prepared to recycle their plastic bottles to a supermarket RVM, but almost double (86.8%) would be likely to claim their deposit back digitally.

So, claims that adequate technology for a DDRS does not yet exist are nothing more than groundless, and ultimately, should have no real consequence for the industry anyway.

The government’s response to the consultation released in January 2023 said it “recognises the benefits of a digital model” and “remains interested” in seeing the continued testing of the feasibility of introducing a digital scheme in the future.

Furthermore, it says if research and trials show that a DDRS would be appropriate, the DMO (Deposit Management Organisation) and wider industry “should begin to explore the practicalities and feasibility of introducing digital solutions to the scheme in future”.

In other words, it’s up to us. An industry-led mission doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for the government’s permission. It means powering on.

At the time of writing, we’re two and a half years away from the Deposit Return Scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland go-live date in October 2025, and the DRS industry is making strides in its digital progress.

The government has asked us to develop a solution so it’s vital that we don’t stand in our own way.

Our GS1-approved QR codes are just one part of the solution required to enable a DDRS which has already been recognised as having, in the government’s words, “scope or maximising carbon saving benefits of a digital solution compared to return to retailer”.

It also acknowledges DDRS as a way to “reduce reliance on retailer-located RVMs” and offers “the opportunity for greater consumer engagement”. Next month, we will be applying our QR codes to all Co-op, Asda and Aldi milk bottles.

It’s for this reason that we can’t slow down. The nation’s retailers, major recyclers, brand owners, packaging manufacturers, printers and technology vendors must keep testing and driving the mission forward in a joint effort.

The government has asked us to develop a solution so it’s vital that we don’t stand in our own way. There are too many benefits for us all to just ignore a digital solution. The recycling sector and sustainable, circular economies, need to harness the power of digital solutions and step-up to greener, more efficient and cost-effective ways to recycle more together.

And with a radical, transformative, future-proofed and ready-to-deploy digital solution, the UK can be a world leader in green technology and recycling.

To submit your views, contact the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk, or peter.dennis@ciwm.co.uk.

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