Deposits on elite packaging: a health care approach

The recent (and very rational) decision by the environment minister of Ireland to decline to set up a tax levy on packaging and (equally rationale) decision not to take into account setting up a deposit scheme for some elite drinks packaging, has prompted a few reflexions on why deposit and return schemes (DRS) are still popular, after so many examples where they have shown their irrationality.

This links with the offensive to implement a deposit and return system (for the cleanest and most valuable drinks packaging only) which has been going on in Spain for the past three years or so, has also tried to be mimmicked in the UK with very similar arguments in in the attempt to launch a “UK Deposit Alliance” very recently.

Several reasons have been used to try to set up this system, basically decrease of littering, and improvement of recycling rates. None of them is the real one behind it, namely selling thousands of reverse vending machines.

One of the arguments  exhibited is that this or a similar system has been “succesfully implemented” in diferent countries.

The spanish promoters speak about “forty countries or regions” which have the system in place already. I worked up the numbers and did only come to seven and a half countries: five nordic countries in Europe, Germany and parts of the US and Australia.

Other “countries or regions” were actually inventions, areas where there is no packaging collection at all, with the exception of residual refillable packaging systems posed as DRS systems or the like.

I had already analyzed in detail some of the best established systems in operation (nordic countries and Germany) in a paper at the CONAMA conference in late 2012 (CONAMA means National Conference on the Environment) held every other year and the most important environmental conference in our country.

In that paper I came to these conclusions: DRS in Sweden was set up to take care of aluminium recovery for its strategic value; in Norway as a marketing tool to allow the most important manufacturer of reverse vending machines to use the country as a showroom- by the way in a lovely and funny recent video by the Norwegian system they explain how they would wish to “finally get rid of the refillable packaging”-, in Germany to stop competition from one way beer packaging, basically beverage cans, for the national network of local and regional breweries -who due to their small size could only use refillable glass packaging-, in Denmark it was established as a consequence of the EU not allowing one way beer packaging to be banned, again a trade barrier reason.

Namely: in none of the most important DRS markets there was an environmental reason behind the implementation. Wow!

Shortly before publishing that paper I spoke to a group of ladies in my town, who were interested in packaging in general, & I decided to talk about the importance of packaging for modern society, a bit of history and a few anecdotes on curious packages of all types to make it interesting.

I deliberately had not planned to speak about waste, recycling, etc, including not speaking about DRS. At the end of the meeting I had an interesting question from one of the ladies. She was interested in recycling, so I spoke a bit about Green dot systems.

Then came DRS “I have lived in Sweden several years, and there we had a system to collect packaging, which gave you money for your used packaging”.

“Not exactly, it returned the money you had advanced” i said.

She was not aware she had been paying a deposit when she bought her drinks packaging. That’s when I decided that DRS has a placebo effect on consumers, and started understanding a lot of things.

If you feel that you are doing a good thing for the environment by returning a few packages and on top of that get paid for it, you go back home relaxed: you have done the right thing, and got home with some money.

A placebo is an inactive, fake, or “dummy” medication or treatment designed to resemble a drug or treatment and given in the same way. Any improvement in health that is measured, observed, or felt after the placebo is given is called the “placebo effect”.

It fits beautifully on the effect DRS has on some consumers.

That’s right, if we change “treatment” for “waste treatment” you are done. It does not matter that with DRS in Norway they recycle only 1,5% of all packaging or that they collect 2% in Germany: people are happy because they feel that they have recycled packaging and saved the environment.

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