Beverage Containers: A better fate than litter and landfill

Beverage Containers: A better fate than litter and landfill

*** This post was updated in October 2019 to reflect policy developments ***

Key points

  • In New Zealand we use 2.23 billion beverage containers a year. Only 40% are recycled. The rest get landfilled or become land and marine litter.
  • A container deposit scheme (CDS) – where people can redeem a 20c deposit on any empty beverage container they drop off at a recycle centre/depot – could decrease the littering of beverage containers and lift their recycling rates to 85% or higher.
  • We could easily set up a CDS in New Zealand; the legislation already exists (passed 10 years ago), and both the public and local authorities overwhelmingly support it.
  • In September 2019, the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, announced that work had begun to design a container deposit scheme for beverage containers for New Zealand.
  • The main obstacle is the opposition of major beverage companies and the packaging industry who continually lobby against a CDS. For too long our politicians have been listening to these lobbyists rather than the people.
  • Although a CDS is not a silver bullet (it would be better if we could reduce our beverage container waste in the first place by refusing to buy bottled drinks if we don’t need them), recovering the beverage containers we do use, for either recycling or reuse, is a much better outcome than landfilling or littering.

Action points

Join us in making our everyday voices heard on the problem of beverage container waste and what we can do about it:

  • Learn about what a CDS is and how it works. For example, watch this video by Envision, listen to our podcast on The Kiwi Bottle Drive, or have a read of The InCENTive to Recycle.
  • Follow the progress of the working group designing a container deposit scheme. We want to see an ambitious scheme that focuses actions on the top of the waste hierarchy – so prevention and reduction of waste, as well as scaleable reuse/refill systems for drinks.








**Full Post**

No more bottles in our gutters, waterways, beaches and rubbish bins!

Everywhere we go in New Zealand, we find empty, discarded beverage containers lying around, from glass bottles and cans to the dreaded plastic bottle. We also find countless overflowing public bins – in cities, on beaches, by streams and rivers – filled with recyclable beverage containers. Next time you’re out and about, wherever you are, have a look in the gutters, glance from the car window to the roadside, and note what you see along the State Highways. Observe what is visible poking out of public rubbish bins. You’ll soon see what we mean.

This state of affairs is a crying shame for two reasons. First, recyclable beverage containers do not belong in rubbish bins because then they go to landfill where the salvageable materials in them (and our opportunity to reduce carbon emissions through the more energy efficient process of recycling) are lost to the economy. This is especially outrageous when the containers are made of infinitely recyclable materials, like glass or aluminium.

Second, the bottles and cans on the side of the road are often ignored, not picked up, and left to languish where they are until they’re flushed or blown into waterways and the sea. Plastic bottles that leak into the environment take hundreds of years to break down, and once they do, they break down into microplastics and we all know how bad those are…

What do these issues look like in numbers? In New Zealand, we use about 2.23 billion beverage containers each year and only 40% get recycled. The remaining 60% – enough to fill 700 jumbo jets, at least – gets sent to landfill or becomes land or marine litter.

What could we do about this in NZ?

While we could lament this situation until the cows come home, we’re interested in putting a stop to this madness by exploring ways of substantially reducing the littering of beverage containers and incentivising their recycling.

Since the late 1980s, NZ has been trialling the neoliberal approach to waste issues (among other issues), which involves engaging people’s sense of personal responsibility, alongside a healthy dose of environmental guilt-tripping, i.e. “don’t be lazy, recycle!” and “put stuff in the bin, don’t litter!” However, if you take a walk down New Zealand’s roads, and look at the stats on our beverage container recycling rates, this approach clearly hasn’t worked. It’s time to try something else, preferably an approach that creates actual incentives for people to do the right thing, rather than relying on their environmental conscience alone.

Turns out that there is an alternative. It’s called a Container Deposit Scheme (CDS). We used to have one in NZ and every time we bring it up at our talks, the members of our audiences who are old enough to remember it go starry eyed and nostalgic…

What is a container deposit scheme?

A 20c deposit is built into the purchase price of a bottled/canned beverage. When the drink is finished, the empty container can be returned to a recycling depot and the person who brings it in gets the 10c deposit back for their efforts. For a snappy explanation of how a CDS could work in NZ, check out this video.

Using this very simple lever, countries with container bottle deposit schemes see a dramatic decrease in litter and a big lift in recycling rates. It’s all pretty simple economics – motivated by a desire to get their 10c deposit back, people are more likely to recycle (rather than bin) their bottles. Even if they don’t, someone else will do it for them because suddenly any bottles lying in the gutter or poking out of bins are worth something. So, rather than just walk past them, people have a reason to pick them up and cash them in, whether that’s people on low incomes, community groups, schools or scouts running fundraisers, or just your everyday Joe Ploggs. Not only that, but as the scheme is funded by the producers and consumers of beverages, it takes financial pressure off councils (and therefore, ratepayers) to foot the bill for recycling these items.

If you would like to read a well-researched case for CDS in New Zealand, check out The InCENTive to Recycle, a 2015 report by waste consultancy Envision, which does the job much better than we could possibly do here. If you’d rather listen to something, check out our podcast with Colin and Gabrielle Kemplen from Transition Matamata, who have been promoting The Kiwi Bottle Drive campaign in Matamata.

Wouldn’t it be complicated to set up a container deposit scheme in New Zealand?

No! The EXCELLENT news is that in September 2019, the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, announced that work has begun to design a container deposit scheme for New Zealand! A working group of stakeholders will design the scheme by August 2020. It will then be up to the Minister whether or not this scheme will be implemented – we sure hope it will be…!

Implementing the scheme would not be complicated. First, there’s no need to pass legislation to set one up because we’ve already got it. Under Part 2 of the Waste Minimisation Act 2008, the Minister for the Environment can authorise a CDS pretty quickly using s 23(1)(e), OR by declaring beverage containers a “priority product” (following consultation with the public and the Waste Advisory Board), which would then require that they be subject to a mandatory product stewardship scheme. The other great news is that in August 2019, the Minister announced a proposal to declare beverage packaging (along with a bunch of other product categories) a “priority product”. If this goes ahead, it’ll mean that the resulting product stewardship scheme will tee up very nicely with the container deposit scheme model produced by the working group mentioned above.

Politically, it shouldn’t be a problem for any government to implement a CDS because the public seem broadly to support one, regardless of their party political persuasion. Whenever we talk with people about container deposit schemes – at markets, in homes, at our public talks and at schools – we’ve never once met a person who thinks they’re a bad idea (surely such people exist, but they seem to be pretty few and far between). Furthermore, The Kiwi Bottle Drive, has received thousands of signatures on its petition to bring back CDS in New Zealand, while a nationwide study by The WasteMINZ Territorial Authority Forum found that 83% of the public support a scheme, with 58% being strongly in favour. People want this.

Ninety percent of local authorities also support implementation of a mandatory CDS. This tells us a lot because local authorities are responsible for dealing with waste and recycling and so presumably favour initiatives that are going to make their job easier (i.e. will actually work and be cost-effective).

What’s been the hold up then?

Well, the short answer is that major players in the packaging and beverage industry have opposed CDS for a long time. Without CDS, beverage companies get a free-ride they don’t want to end. Beverage companies currently have no responsibility whatsoever to ensure that their beverage containers get recycled or are not littered. Furthermore, the costs of dealing with a business’ containers are not borne by them, but by councils, rate payers, the public, and of course, the environment. In contrast, under a CDS regime, beverage companies would have to make a small contribution towards the scheme’s running costs (though, we’re talking something very small – 1 cent per beverage container at most), which the companies would either absorb themselves, or pass on to consumers.

Through The Packaging Forum, the packaging industry and major beverage companies have been lobbying very hard, in public and behind the scenes, to avoid a CDS in NZ (though, we should note and acknowledge that some beverage companies do support CDS). You can read the industry’s position in The Packaging Forum’s 2016 response to Envision’s 2015 InCENTive to Recycle report. You can read Warren Snow’s response to The Packaging Forum’s arguments here (Warren Snow was the lead author of the InCENTive to Recycle).

If you’re thinking “argh! So much back and forth!! How can I know what’s true and what’s not?!” you’ll be pleased to know that Auckland City Council commissioned an independent analysis of the competing claims for and against a CDS in NZ, which you can read here (for a shorter read, check out the summary report by the WasteMINZ Territorial Authority Forum). This independent analysis concluded that the benefits of CDS in NZ would outweigh the costs by about 3-6 times. In the “worst-case scenario” the benefits would only be more than double the costs.

Ultimately, we (Hannah and Liam) have reached the point where if we see one more bottle in a gutter, in a national park or on a beach, we might explode. Clearly, the laissez-faire approach of expecting people to do the right thing does not work. But things don’t have to be this way; many other countries have already carved out the way for us by demonstrating what’s possible – Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, even South Australia, for goodness sake, have CDS and it’s working. This is not rocket science.

(Graph taken from The InCENTive to Recycle)

Fundamentally, the people who drink these drinks and the companies who profit from making them, should pay for cleaning up the mess (and note that consumers only actually lose money if they forego their right to redeem their 20c deposit). Given the cost on consumers and producers would be small vis-à-vis the benefit to New Zealand as a whole, given that we’ve got the legislation sitting there waiting to be used, and given that the public overwhelmingly supports a scheme such as this, we really are thoroughly amazed that NZ still does not have CDS, and that we allow our politicians and government officials to be blindsided by the packaging industry’s quite brazen manipulation.

Isn’t CDS focused on recycling? Is this really the answer to our waste problems?

Those of you who have been to our talks will know that we see recycling as the last resort in our own efforts to minimise waste. So you may wonder why we support an initiative that’s focused on recycling.

First, until people reduce their consumption of bottled drinks, there’s got to be a better solution to binning and littering the empty bottles (neither of which feature on the waste hierarchy/6Rs); we would rather the bottles are recycled than landfilled or left to pollute the environment.

Second, CDS is actually not about recycling – it’s about bottle recovery. When large numbers of bottles are recovered, you get better systematic recycling rates, which is crucial for making recycling viable in countries like NZ with small economies of scale (for example, CDS could make Tetra Pak recycling viable, or make it affordable for the South Island’s glass to be consistently transported to Auckland and recycled into new bottles, rather than stockpiled, landfilled, or downcycled into roads – see page 9 of Warren Snow’s report).

Furthermore, better recovery rates open up new, more interesting opportunities that go beyond recycling. For some beverage containers, such as glass, large-scale recovery through a CDS could facilitate reuse systems, whereby recovered glass bottles are sterilised and reused by beverage companies. So, CDS could actually help us, as a society, to move up the waste hierarchy, at least for some materials. Should this work well, more beverages might well be packaged in glass rather than plastic because a reuse system could end up being more cost-effective and energy efficient.

Is a Container Deposit Scheme just a cop out? Why can’t people just take responsibility, reduce their consumption, stop littering and recycle more?

We agree that it would be great if people didn’t litter, if people always put their recyclables in a recycling bin rather than a rubbish bin, and if people reassessed what they really needed in life and held back on purchasing so many of these bottled drinks in the first place. Don’t get us wrong, there’s lots of room for improvement in our individual behaviour and we don’t see bottle deposits as a panacea (for example, if everyone got a reusable water bottle and just drank New Zealand’s potable tap water, we wouldn’t have to worry about recycling hundreds of thousands of Pump bottles…). The Rubbish Trip will always focus, first and foremost, on trying to normalise and encourage waste reduction.

However, to hinge national waste policy on people’s better nature alone is ridiculous. In fact, that’s the approach that industry wants us to take (it’s no coincidence that The Packaging Forum likes to fund anti-littering campaigns and willingly collaborates with Be a Tidy Kiwi and Keep New Zealand Beautiful). The formulation goes a bit like this: blame individual litterbugs rather than making the companies that actually produce (and make money off) this rubbish, take responsibility for the waste their products produce. For a great discussion on this, see Sandra Murray’s article on page 20 of the July 2017 edition of Revolve Magazine.

So, no, we don’t see a CDS as a cop-out. We see it as a logical way to deal with a large chunk of the mess that we continue to create every day, and it’s certainly not going to make anything worse. CDS is no silver bullet to our waste problems, but it’s no step backwards either.

What we DO consider a cop-out is that successive governments have taken their cue from big business rather than everyday New Zealanders and consequently refusing to implement this very simple measure to reduce littering and lift recycling rates. The current situation sees communities, tax and rate payers, and local and central government effectively subsidising big business to pollute. The fact that we’ve allowed this to continue for so long would almost be funny, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s tragic.

So, it’s great that now a scheme is in the pipeline, but the years of backroom industry lobbying do tell us something very important, and that’s that we need to keep a very close eye on the scheme that’s designed. Who’s going to be at that design table? Will there be community representation? How do we make sure the scheme is not watered down? How do we ensure that the scheme is designed to promote outcomes at the top of the waste hierarchy (i.e. waste prevention, reduction, and bottle refill/reuse systems), and not just more downcycling of plastic bottles? Furthermore, we also must ensure that not only is a CDS designed, but that it’s actually implemented too!

So, we call on the power of everyday New Zealanders to keep your eye on the prize – there’s no need to become complacent yet, but at least we’re on the right track. We end this post with the words of Gabrielle and Colin Kemplen in their podcast with us about CDS… “it’s a no-brainer”.

2 thoughts on “Beverage Containers: A better fate than litter and landfill”

  • We need CDS ASAP. We need glass out collection nationwide ASAP. We need to build a new glass factory in Christchurch. The closure of Crown Crystal in 1987 was a big blow to glass recycling here.

    • Agreed Garry! We didn’t know about Crown Crystal – was that a glass recycling plant?

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