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Decision time on deposit return scheme for Scotland

Makers of soft drinks including AG Barr, Britvic and Coca-Cola have urged Scotland’s new first minister Humza Yousaf to make the country’s deposit return scheme (DRS) a “top priority”.

The Grocer this week reported that industry is “waiting with bated breath” for the first minister’s next move. Yousaf has previously claimed he would exempt smaller businesses for the first year of the scheme, which is due to launch in August, but there is confusion about whether that will, or indeed can, happen.

Yousaf has reappointed Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, to her role as minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity. She has led DRS and found herself under increasing pressure from industry to clear up concerns as well as address what UKHospitality Scotland chief executive Leon Thompson refers to as a “credibility gap” in the scheme. 

To start the scheme Scotland and the UK government also have to agree on an exemption from the internal market act. The process, as Footprint reported this week, is not straightforward but Holyrood is confident of it going through.

Calls for Scotland to hold off and wait to sign up to a UK-wide scheme in 2025 persist however. “We are going through the request that was made, but there is also a balance here in terms of understanding from the new first minister whether that is still the policy that they wish to do and whether they want to continue with that request for exemption from the UK internal market,” UK environment secretary Thérèse Coffey told MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee this week. 

Coffey continued: “Consumers and industry would love a UK-wide scheme, or at least a GB-wide scheme, and that is still open to the Scottish Government to join, if they wish to.” 

Polling suggests the public in Scotland remains supportive of the idea, if a little confused about what it is. 

Campaigners meanwhile remain frustrated that the onus is on Scotland to postpone rather than for the rest of the UK to accelerate their plans. Between the original launch date of April 1st 2021, and the one now planned for August 16th 2023, some 2.1 billion drink containers will already have been littered, landfilled or incinerated rather than recycled, according to circular economy platform Reloop.

Organisations from across Europe reportedly wrote to Slater this week to show support for Scotland’s DRS and highlight how the legislation has inspired new systems in more countries. 

Some 50 countries successfully operate some form of DRS. In Scotland the plan is for a 20p deposit to be added to drinks containers made from PET plastic, glass, aluminium or steel, which is then refunded when the packaging is returned. Producers of packaging pay a small fee and retailers receive one. In England the scheme is unlikely to include glass but in Wales it will.

Sources told The Grocer this week that if smaller producers were allowed to opt out of the scheme en masse, they risked being delisted by the major supermarkets, amid the prospect of chaos with products sitting on the shelves free from deposits alongside those having to pay.

STV reported that Three Blind Mice Brewery has started labelling its beer as “not for sale in Scotland”. The brewery, based in Ely, England, has not registered for the DRS and applied the labels in case a third-party reseller sold cans north or the border. The beers are not currently sold in Scotland, according to DRS administrator Circularity Scotland.

Fears of hefty fines may prompt others to follow this lead, though. “We urgently need the new first minister to carry out his leadership election promise and give small producers the extra time they need to prepare for the DRS scheme, otherwise Scottish drinkers will not have access to the same range of beer as England come the summer,” Andy Slee, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, told STV.

UKHospitality Scotland chief executive Leon Thompson told that Yousaf must “reset his party’s relationship with the business community and properly engage with Scottish hospitality”. He said that “enormous inflation across energy, food and drink costs and the looming prospect of a chaotic and poorly designed deposit return scheme” was “significantly hampering our venues’ ability to succeed and grow”.