Plastic bottle recycling will use reverse vending machines by 2025 with plans to add cash deposits to drink purchases
Reverse vending machines which pay people for returning empty plastic bottles will soon become a common feature in shops and supermarkets as the government searches for new ways to encourage recycling.
The system - which would see a small deposit of around 10p or 20p added to the cost of a bottle or can when it is bought - would then be refunded to customers when they take back their empties.
But the deposit return scheme is already coming under fire from environmental campaigners over plans in England to only include single-use plastic bottles and cans and not items made from glass.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow says she hopes placing a small cash deposit on containers will incentivise people to recycle, which will both reduce litter on the streets and cut down plastic pollution.
Retailers who sell drinks covered by the scheme would most likely also be tasked with running the machine return points - with customers getting their cash deposits back possibly in the form of coupons or supermarket vouchers that they can then re-spend back in the store.
Every year UK consumers go through an estimated 14 billion plastic drinks bottles and nine billion drinks cans, many of which find their way onto roads and pavements or condemned to landfill. But ministers hope the new system - expected to be fully up and running by 2025 - will lead to 85% fewer containers being discarded after the system has been running for three years.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: "We want to support people who want to do the right thing to help stop damaging plastics polluting our green spaces or floating in our oceans and rivers. That is why we are moving ahead using our powers from our landmark Environment Act to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers.
"This will provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily, even when on the move."
The possible introduction of reverse vending machines in the UK was first suggested by David Cameron during his time as prime minister and then again by Michael Gove in 2017.
While the system would mark a stark change for the UK, deposit return schemes are already commonplace in many parts of Europe including Germany, Finland and Norway where recycling rates hover around 90% and at least 20% higher than Great Britain's.
But a decision in England to potentially only accept plastics and cans will set the scheme apart from those expected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland while campaigners including Surfers Against Sewage and A Plastic Planet are among those to already be expressing concerns that excluding glass is a 'missed opportunity' as one of the most environmentally damaging materials.
Environmental experts are also concerned that not adding a small deposit fee to glass items will encourage some manufacturers and supermarkets to readily switch their drinks from plastic and can to avoid adding the deposit to shopping bills.
But Dusan Stojankic, vice president of operations at Coca-Cola in Great Britain & Ireland, said the company welcomes the government announcement and is fully behind the scheme. He said: "We strongly welcome today’s commitment by the government to introduce Deposit Return Schemes in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
"Coca-Cola has long called for a well-designed Deposit Return Scheme that works seamlessly across Great Britain to reduce litter, and enable more packaging to be collected and recycled at the highest quality. The plans outlined by DEFRA are a step to achieving just that. We’ll continue to work closely with officials, retailers and our peers across the industry to ensure that the scheme is easy for consumers to use, while delivering the best outcome for the environment."