As with many other developed countries across the world, Australia is experiencing a reckoning with their plastics consumption. In the 2017 – 2018 financial year, the country produced 3.4 million tonnes of plastic waste, but recycled only 320,000 tonnes of it, equivalent to less than 10 per cent. Of that amount the majority was exported for processing, which with today’s technological advancements that allow for the continuous reuse of plastic meant that the country was either wasting or shipping off a considerable amount of a valuable resource.

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In the few years since then, the national and state governments of Australia have been making large-scale efforts to tackle this problem. A National Waste Policy Action Plan was enacted that aimed to see the country reach a national resource recovery target of 80 percent by 2030, and the number of states and territories with container deposit schemes have been growing with each passing year. With Tasmania recently announcing they will adopt a split-responsibility model for the state’s proposed Container Refund Scheme, the move is a concrete step in taking Australia one step closer to their national goals.

One avid proponent for container deposit schemes is Vik Bansal, chief executive officer and managing director of Cleanaway, the largest waste management company in the country. Cleanaway’s mission statement under Bansal is “making a sustainable future possible,” and he has been vocal in his belief that through a combination of strong government policy, industry partnerships, and consumer demand, meaningful development of a circular economy within the country can occur.

What are container deposit schemes?

While execution can vary greatly depending on the legislation that enacted it, container deposit schemes – also known as deposit refund schemes – generally work by charging a deposit fee on beverage containers at the point of sale. The container can then be returned to designated collection points which can include reverse vending machines, over-the-counter shops, or large collection depots, after which the depositor will receive a refund of the fee. Who pays the fee also varies depending on the design of the scheme, for example, in Germany retailers and the beverage industry have to bear the costs and in return are allowed to keep any unclaimed deposits. In other countries, the cost is passed on to the consumer, and several countries with deposit return schemes have a centralised non-profit operating system that runs the collection points and takes back any money from unclaimed deposits.

Do container deposit schemes work?

The aim of a container deposit scheme is to encourage recycling by rewarding good recycling behaviour, which should result in less containers disposed of in landfills or littered, but can these programs achieve these goals? The answer is consistently yes, with evidence showing this from countries across the globe and Australia itself. In Norway, 95 per cent of all plastic bottles are now recycled, and research has found that countries with container deposit schemes all tend to recycle between 80 per cent and 95 per cent of their plastic bottles. As part of the process for implementing the New South Wales container deposit scheme, BehaviourWorks Australia at Monash University reviewed research and data from 47 examples of container deposit schemes or trials around the world and found that they recovered an average of 76 per cent of drink containers. Like Australia, the United States does not have a national container deposit scheme, but the beverage container recovery rates for aluminium, plastic and glass in the 11 states with container deposit schemes were 84%, 48% and 65% respectively, compared with 39%, 20% and 25% in states without them.

In addition to just recycling rates, container deposit schemes can also have other far-reaching benefits. Charities, schools, and other community institutions can hold bottle deposit drives, asking people to donate their beverage containers which they can then return for the refund, providing grassroots organisations, local sports clubs, schools and households an opportunity to fundraise or earn some extra cash. Additionally, widespread awareness of the scheme’s positive benefits further encourages people to recycle their containers over general waste disposal.

While kerbside recycling is a practical service that allows for a certain amount of ease and convenience when it comes to recycling our household waste, when food scraps and other non-recyclable items end up in the recycling bin it can lead to contamination within the recycling process and result in a lower-grade quality material. Separating our recycling streams provides higher quality material for use in manufacturing new products. Container deposit schemes are a simple way to provide a clean waste stream that will create products that are more likely to be recycled again. For example glass from kerbside recycling is often crushed and turned into road base due to contamination, meaning that material will have reached the end of its life cycle. However, glass containers collected through container deposit schemes are able to be turned into new bottles which can in turn be recycled and used again. “At Cleanaway we have seen firsthand the environmental, economic and social benefits of a container return scheme. A system that encourages consumers to separate recycling at the point of disposal improves the quality of the recyclable material, which makes it an even more valuable commodity for reuse,” said Bansal.

The Australian recycling industry is worth $15 billion to the economy and has a lot of positive economic and societal benefits. Recycling waste actually creates more jobs than if those valuable resources were simply sent to the landfill. In fact for every 10,000 tonnes of waste recycled 9.2 full-time jobs are created, compared with just 2.8 jobs when the same amount of waste is sent to landfill. The evidence of benefits can even be seen in Australia itself. The Western Australia container deposit scheme has created more than 600 jobs across the state, and the New South Wales scheme helped reduce the number of littered beverage containers by 57.3 per cent.

Container deposit schemes in Australia

South Australia was an early adopter of the container deposit scheme, even by international standards. It has had a program in place since 1977, and currently has an overall return rate of 76.9 per cent. In 2019 alone, 603 million containers equating to 42,913 tonnes were recovered by collection depots for recycling, and beverage containers make up only 2.8 per cent of litter within the state. The state’s minister for environment and water announced a review of the scheme in January of 2019 to look into ways the state can build on their success and further recycling and litter reduction efforts.

In 2012, the Northern Territory launched their container deposit scheme. Beverage container litter dropped by 50 per cent within the first year, and by 2016 the stream had decreased to a record low of 24 percent litter by volume. The state also reported a 34.5 per cent decline in overall litter, a significant amount that was attributed to a lower volume of takeaway packaging and beverage containers in the litter stream.

New South Wales introduced their “Return and Earn” scheme at the end of 2017, and since then have successfully brought down the litter volume of their drink containers to 37 percent and total litter volume down by nearly half. In partnership with TOMRA, Cleanaway is the network operator for their container deposit scheme, which elected to operate under a split responsibility model. Unlike a producer responsibility model like those that would be implemented in Queensland and Western Australia which are governed by producer responsibility organisation consisting of beverage, manufacturing and other industry representatives, a split responsibility model sees that governance is split between network operators and scheme coordinator consisting of beverage and other industry

representatives, community and environmental experts. At the time of the announcement of Cleanaway’s partnership with TOMRA, Bansal said “at Cleanaway our mission is to make a sustainable future possible and there is no better example of sustainability than a CDS scheme. NSW CDS is an excellent illustration of how governments can work with industry to implement policies that drive behaviour change and environmental benefits for generations to come.”

Queensland initiated their “Containers for Change” container deposit scheme in 2018, and within two short years was reporting that more than 3.7 million containers were being taken every day to one of their designated recycling centres. Western Australia has only just initiated their container deposit scheme network in October of 2020, so it still remains to be seen as to whether the producer responsibility models they selected will impact the success of the programs.

Finally, Tasmania and Victoria have yet to start their container deposit scheme programs, but both have them in the works. Victoria expects theirs to be rolled out in 2023 and create hundreds of jobs across the state, and Tasmania’s finalization of a split responsibility model sets it up to recreate the success that the New South Wales scheme found, where three out of four adults are regular participants. Vik Bansal has consistently been a proponent of a national waste strategy, but with all states and territories now on board with their own container deposit schemes, it is at least a large step in the right direction.

Connect with Vik Bansal on F6s and Medium.