Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme: ‘Catastrophic’, ‘Reckless’ and ‘Economic Carnage’

Maurice Golden, Conservative MSP for North East Scotland, Convenor of Circular Economy Cross Party Group and CIWM Chartered Member, explores whether Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme needs a “pause and review”. 

Scotland’s much delayed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is due to launch on 16 August with a twenty pence deposit levied on all single-use drinks containers made from PET plastic, glass, and metal cans. The vast majority of businesses are supportive of the concept but in recent months hundreds of business have described Scotland’s DRS as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘reckless’, meanwhile the former Finance Secretary and SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes said the scheme would cause ‘economic carnage’. So how did this debacle unfold? 

I wouldn’t have started there is a common response from politicians and similarly when considering a DRS, it is first necessary to a step back. If a nation had a blank slate, the first actions would be around waste prevention and reuse, however, recycling would form an important component of any waste strategy. 

Thinking about household waste, a government should introduce consistent, comprehensive kerbside systems and then extended producer responsibility, all in conjunction with reprocessing infrastructure. Thereafter, there should be a review of what further government intervention is required and on what materials streams (or part thereof). DRS is one such intervention. 

Of course, no nation or region is starting from scratch.

In Scotland, we have a similar household recycling rate to England and have yet to meet the Scottish Government’s 2013 target of 50%. Therefore, DRS seems like an appealing prospect as a tried and tested way of increasing the recycling rates of scheme articles. 

Yet, DRS should have been tested against enhancing kerbside provision – for example glass is not collected separately by ten local authorities and Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has a recycling rate of less than 30%. 

For many politicians, the allure of something shiny and new like DRS is too much to turn down when compared to the more mundane approach of enhancing kerbside collections. An evidence-based approach to setting policy is somewhat lacking in political spheres and in any case the question of how to increase household recycling rates for all material streams was never considered. 

For many politicians, the allure of something shiny and new like DRS is too much to turn down when compared to the more mundane approach of enhancing kerbside collections

If the Scottish Government is to make a major intervention and industry is going to pay hundreds of millions of pounds, is DRS the best solution for Scotland? I don’t know – no one does because the analysis was never conducted.

DRS has been on the statute books since 2009, yet a decade of preparation was wasted and in 2019 the Scottish Government announced plans to launch on 1 April 2021. It would have been April Fool’s Day if it had launched then especially as the scheme administrator, Circularity Scotland, was formed just two months earlier. 

The Scottish Government eventually delayed the scheme again and then again as their own Gateway Reviews warned of concerns about a successful launch. An assurance report in December 2021 described the Scottish Government’s programme team as having ‘limited experience’ and Ministers were notified of a lack of “maturity” in the scheme administrator’s board meant they were incapable of making “key decisions” and that this inexperience presented a “major risk” to the new August 2023 launch date. 

Controversially, glass was included despite the business case being weak in my opinion. The inclusion disproportionally affects the hospitality sector, retailers, Scotland’s world leading beer and whisky producers as well as the wine sector. 

If DRS is the solution for glass, then should it not also be applied to clothing? 

In many instances, a bottle of whisky will last much longer than a t-shirt. Furthermore, there is no glass-remelt target – this isn’t a reuse scheme but a recycling scheme. 

The Scottish Government designed the DRS assuming glass would be collected whole, but this will not be the case and indeed the Scottish Government confirmed no analysis of including a re-melt target had been conducted. 

Glass also adds complexity and costs to the scheme yet, if it were excluded, producers of, particularly soft drinks, could transfer drinks to glass containers at the expense of aluminium and plastic. If this were a reuse scheme that might be a sensible pill for government to swallow. 

There are a host of other issues engulfing the scheme, from the fact that the majority of producers have failed to sign up to the controversial tender process for waste collections as well as a lack of clarity over retail price marks, return point exemptions, glass tolerance levels to name but a few. 

In addition, there is no way for the elderly, infirm, disabled or those without access to a private car to easily access the scheme as online takeback has been exempted. 

I don’t know whether the scheme will launch on 16 August but any sensible government would pause and review. 

Got something to say on this article or topic? Submit your views and contact the editor at

Send this to a friend