At Friends of Glass, we often get asked why the UK doesn’t return to the refund on bottle system. It’s a very good question. On the face of it, it does seem an obvious solution for all the reasons that Lucy Siegle’s recent piece in The Observer points out. But like so many seemingly simple ideas, the reality is more complex. In essence, the way we shop and the array of choices we have has fundamentally changed and so some of the old support systems once so popular, are no longer viable.
The bottle deposit system, perhaps the original ‘closed loop’ idea, is unfortunately one such casualty. We once relied on the corner store and a handful of locally-based suppliers such as the milkman and the fizzy pop man who would deliver such essentials to our door. Now we now have an abundance of much larger stores and suppliers who operate vast supply chains through centrally located warehouses.
The refund system worked because consumers were buying the same type of bottle from the same supplier over and over again. Once used, the bottle was replaced in the crate and taken away to be washed and reused, or collected and returned to a shop by the youngster keen to earn extra pocket money.
The explosion in consumer choice means different shapes and sizes of bottles from different suppliers in different locations. Which in turn means economically the old system just is no longer workable because the same bottles can no longer be guaranteed to be returned to the right supplier or brand owner. And the local depots where the bottles would be returned to no longer exist.
However, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of a return to some sort of return and reuse system; reuse is the most sustainable outcome of all and glass is superbly suited to it. There are some areas, notably Germany and Benelux countries, where the bottle deposit system still thrives. There are even a few examples in England and Scotland, where specific brands such as Ben Shaw and Irn Bru operate own brand bottle returns.
Friends of Glass would love to see bottle returns make a comeback – let’s hope the brands, retailers and the supply chain do too.
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