Thursday, 8 September 2016

There'll be no green bottles...

Politics may be broken for the foreseeable, but there's still good news around for people who want to see our society wasting fewer finite resources and trashing the environment a bit less (if that group doesn't cover just about everybody, heaven help us all). Solar panels are getting cheaper and better all the time, with solar grid parity expected for 80% of the world next year. The price of energy-efficient LEDs is also plummeting and they're steadily displacing older, power-hungry lighting technologies.  People can now use biodegradable, mushroom-based materials as substitutes for everything from expanded polystyrene packaging to environmentally-unfriendly insulation materials and MDF.

Here in Britain, we're not recycling as much as we could be, but we're generally moving in the right direction. And, even better than recycling, we're re-using stuff. The plastic bag tax may not be as straightforwardly brilliant as some people think,* but at least we're opening up to the idea that there's got to be a better way than pouring irreplaceable raw materials into single-use throwaway products, then festooning our hedgerows with discarded polythene bags.

I think these new ideas range from mildly encouraging to quite exciting. But among the new ideas, there's maybe also room for a tried and tested old idea  - a thing we used to do right, but gave up on:
One of Britain's favourite childhood memories is long overdue a comeback in a bid to increase national recycling rates, says Mark Hall at York-based

Paying a deposit on a glass bottle, which is then refunded when returned to a participating retailer, effectively died out in the UK with the advent of the disposable plastic bottle, but now is the time to bring it back.

Figures from the United States - where bottle deposits are still widespread – show that the higher the deposit, the more likely a bottle is returned intact.

We often look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, but the bottle deposit was something that really did work.

In the post-war period, children could make themselves a reasonable fortune by scouring their local area for empty bottles, which they'd then take back to the shop to receive a few pence each.

It was killed off by plastic bottles, but that came with a legacy of millions of tonnes of waste in hedgerows and kerbs filled with bottles. It's time to end this epidemic of wastefulness.
Mark Hall

It worked then and it's still working, not just in the USA, but in Europe, where Germany deserves a special mention for trying to get back on track with deposits:
Observing the industry's inexorable transition to one-way containers, the government began drafting an ordinance to preserve refillable beverage containers in the early 1990s. In spite of aggressive opposition from the beverage and the packaging industries, the 1991 Packaging Ordinance became law that year. The ordinance requires the beverage industry to package at least 72 percent of the volume of its products in refillable containers [AGC, pp. 31-32]. Containers of water, carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and other non-carbonated soft drinks, beer, and wine are subject to the beverage packaging provisions of the ordinance. If less than 72 percent of all of these beverages combined is packaged in refillable containers during a given year, then the government conducts a survey of beverage packaging over the following year. If this survey reveals that the 72 percent quota again is not met, then those types of beverages that did not meet their individual quotas are subject to a mandatory deposit. Under the deposit provision, producers of these non-complying beverages must establish deposit-return systems and thus must forfeit their option to have Duales System Deutschland or a similar recycling organization recover their one-way containers. For one-way containers whose capacity is 1.5 liters or less, the mandatory deposit is 0.25 Euro; for larger containers, the deposit is 0.50 Euro. The individual quota for each beverage is the percentage of that beverage that was packaged in refillable containers in 1991. These percentages are the following: water, 91; carbonated soft drinks, 73; juices and other non-carbonated soft drinks, 35; beer, 82; wine, 29. The Packaging Ordinance treats milk separately by requiring dairies to package 20 percent of their milk in refillable containers.**
Sounds like a no-brainer. So why aren't we doing it? An old opinion piece in the Guardian, titled "A bottle deposit scheme would be costly and counterproductive" gives us a clue. Not because the piece makes a convincing counter argument, though. This is the sort of thing which passes for an argument against bottle re-use:
Your editorial on the Campaign to Protect Rural England's call for a deposits scheme for drinks containers highlighted that "it's a simple scheme and an old one" (In praise of… deposit bottles, 17 September). However, that's exactly the point – it's old, defunct...

   ...CPRE admits that the scheme would cost as much as £700m a year to run – money that would ultimately come from consumers, either directly through unclaimed deposits or indirectly through higher prices...

...drinks containers are an income-generating part of councils' recycling collections, and vital to fund the other low- or no- value items.
That last argument, in particular, is so weak, it's almost funny. It reminds me of a documentary about litter I saw a few years back. The film makers set up a secret camera and recorded people who were dropping litter in the street. A reporter confronted the litterbugs and asked them why they were messing up everybody's environment.

Some offenders had the good grace to be a bit ashamed of being caught and conceded that dropping their rubbish wherever they happened to be had been a bit antisocial. Others got aggressive and tried to bluster it out, including one gentleman who argued that by dropping litter in a public place, he was doing a public service because people like him kept street cleaners in a job.

Arguing that by producing more waste for the council to recycle, you're public-spiritedly providing them with an income stream is almost as silly as arguing that by dropping litter you're selflessly promoting employment opportunities for street sweepers.

Jane Bickerstaffe, who produced this piece of corporate bluster was, at the time, the director of The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). And what is INCPEN? Glad you asked:
Our members are an influential group of International and British companies who have a common interest in packaging and sustainability. They include raw material suppliers, packaging manufacturers, and manufacturers and retailers of packaged products.


We share a vision of the future where all production, distribution, and consumption are sustainable.

We aim to:

  • Help ensure policy on packaging makes a positive contribution to sustainability
  • Encourage industry to minimise the environmental impact of packaging and packaged products and continuously improve packaging
  • Explain the role of packaging

[see full vision statement...]
From INCPEN's own web site ("This information may be reproduced provided INCPEN is acknowledged and credited").

INCPEN's arguments may look weak, but its incentive to lobby on behalf of the influential producers and users of packaging materials it represents, and which fund INCPEN, looks quite strong.

Maybe the countries which still seem to be making a success of bottle re-use have got it all wrong. Maybe INCPEN is a disinterested organisation, more interested in what's best for the environment than it is in its members' bottom lines. But I can't help thinking that the environmental case for re-using glass bottles looks pretty sound, and that the counter arguments look a lot like PR spin and corporate lobbying.

*Moreover, they [reusable shopping bags AKA bags-for-life] require more energy to produce than common plastic shopping bags; one reusable bag requires the same amount of energy as an estimated 28 traditional plastic shopping bags or eight paper bags. "If used once per week, four or five reusable bags will replace 520 plastic bags a year", according to Nick Sterling, research director at Natural Capitalism Solutions. A study commissioned by the United Kingdom Environment Agency in 2005 but never published found that the average cotton bag is used only 51 times before being thrown away. In some cases reusable bags need to be used over 100 times before they’re better for the environment than single-use plastic bags.
** Post updated - the paragraph quoted above expains the situation in Germany better than the passage from this other article, which I'd originally used.