Cadaques: experiments with soda can be expensive

Versión en español: Cadaqués: los experimentos con gaseosa pueden salir caros

Cadaqués (3000 inh) is a beautiful small town in the heart of the Costa Brava (NE Spain), in the center of the Cap de Creus natural park, world renowned for its most famous neighbour, painter Salvador Dalí, who lived in Port Lligat.

It has been the place for an experiment, presented in London in july as a success story, at a UK Deposit Alliance meeting, to promote deposit and return systems for some drinks packaging in the UK, in a similar fashion to the offensive which has been going on in Spain for the past three years.

As a first hand witness to both, the spanish offensive and the catalan DRS experiment, I think that I can provide some food for thought on this interesting subject. This experiment follows an earlier “pilot project” we analysed in due time, which took place in a yet smaller town in the center of the country, with which it shares many features.

Very soon we will hear elsewhere about the “fantastic results” of this experiment, that their promoters have called “pilot project”. Those results have already been advanced a few days ago in a kind of mid-term review: “a complete success”.

This flagship has taken place in eight stores and two supermarkets in this emblematic town. It started on April 15 and ended on July 10, the last ten days to collect circulating containers, about 86 days in all more or less.

For us, the project in question is nothing more than just another marketing campaign to try to introduce in Spain the controversial DRS (deposit, and return system) for some selected beverage containers, and I will try to show that it has not brought any improvement to packaging recycling while its cost has been stratospheric.

On the other hand, it fetched quite good PR results indeed as a tourist promotion tool, as most media spoke about Cadaqués last summer on the occasion of the experiment.

To analyze this whole story, I’m sorry for the reader, you will have to hear about a lot of numbers.

The first question would be: does it look like the system that has been promoted for almost three years? Well, there are a couple of important differences worth noting.

First, it has been done on only two types of packaging: beverage cans and PET bottles of water (not including the largest sizes), soft drinks and beer, which represent a small fraction of the packaging consumed, around 5%. This campaign forgets two of the containers that appeared in the initial proposal, glass and bev cartons, who also fell off the logo with the same tranquility.

Second, the experiment was made charging a five euro cents deposit, when the actual system would handle a deposit of twenty cents.

Apart from these two previous questions, an experiment like the present would have to answer a number of basic questions.

What proportion of packaging consumed in the city has been purchased with a deposit?

Packaging collected in the experiment, had they paid a deposit before, or have they claimed a refund without having paid before?

How many containers were recovered and what proportion of packaging consumed in the city does it mean?

Possibly the most important question: how much was the cost to collect each package and who picked up the bill?

First try to guess how many of the packages consumed were bought paying a 5 cents deposit. The answer is not simple. In Cadaqués eight stores and two supermarkets have participated in the experiment. But there are 94 restaurants, and adding non-participant bars, kiosks and shops you can buy, for consumption in or off premise, no deposit-bearing beverage cans and PET containers in roughly a hundred and fifty outlets.

We also know that many inhabitants of Cadaqués don´t normally do their weekly or monthly shopping in town, but move to hypermarkets in nearby cities Figueres and Roses, where shopping is cheaper and there are no deposits on packaging.

Spanish citizens consume approximately one container per day (beverage cans and PET bottles for water, beer and soft drinks). DRS promoters speak of 51 million units every day- we are 44 million people- but one unit per head per day is easier to remember. The test lasted about 86 days, counting the days of grace to finish returning the containers, thus the inhabitants and visitors of this beautiful place must have consumed 86 containers each. Something special with Cadaqués is its excellent tourist position. There are  about two thousand places of accommodation in nearby hotels and campings, and it is a place of pilgrimage for daily visitors not staying overnight, who come from different places of the Costa Brava,. In bars, restaurants and kiosks one way drink containers do not pay a deposit. This is easily seen by the movement of cars and buses which has prompted the city to restrict traffic and set up special parking lots for day visitors. It is not unreasonable to assume that it will have added another thousand consumers who logically consume in bars and restaurants, all kinds of hospitality products, largely drinks.

With all these conditions, the slightly over 89,000 containers or so recovered throughout the test are roughly equivalent to about  25% of packaging (of the types included in the test) consumed. This amounts to a “representative” sample of around 1% of packaging consumed in town.

Not all containers collected paid a 5ç deposit before. The condition to retrieve that money is that the same type of drink is sold in a participating store. That is, you can buy the drink elsewhere, for example in an ice cream kiosk, and return the empty container in one of the supermarkets or shops participaing in Cadaqués to “recover” five cents you never paid. A good business.

You may ask: how do you know that? I did the test in person: I went to Cadaqués (as well as some friends) to see how the thing worked, and I returned containers who had not paid a deposit before.

During my visit I asked about who returned packages, and by far the first to come were young people who searched the town to find used containers to get some money. Do you remember the Almonacid del Marquesado test last year, who emptied the town and surrounding towns to get 5ç for packages who had never heard what a deposit was about? I described that in my blog as well – sorry, for the time being only available in Spanish.

So how was all this controlled?

In supermarkets, the return ticket  does not indicate what kind of drink it is: the code is the same for a can purchased with deposit – which also carries an additional sticker- that for a bottle found on the street, which has not paid the extra five cents and that of course does not carry the sticker.

In the store, of all containers that pay a deposit, some carry and some do not the famous sticker. I assume that through the sticker-bearing returned containers, promoters can roughly estimate proportion of returned packages which were purchased with deposit.

As for the previous lack of control and the ability to get money without having put it before, it is likely that many more containers are returned than those who actually paid the deposit.  We assume that this will be the role of the famous sticker, namely avoiding giving return figures of more than 100%, which would be quite lacklustre.

In some of the participating small shops where the return is manual, as there are no reverse vending machines –known as RVM- there is no record or ticket of the operation, so, the grocer stores returned containers in bags to make up five cents plus three cents award. Some friends who tried to obtain information on this point were not very lucky.

With all these data we believe there is enough to say that the test conducted is not representative

– Of consumption
– Of recovery
– And of course of the environmental attitude of the people of this beautiful city, which we need not doubt at all.

The amount of collected packaging, by the way, gives more information than what you could think at first sight. That amount means more or less two and a half tons of materials (metals and PET).

On july, 2, two days after the official closure of the test, the director of the Waste Agency in Catalunya presented in public impressive results for light packaging recycling in Catalunya through the green dot system of 82,7% – twelve points above the average national figure for Spain!

Packaging included in this test do obviously belong to this category of “domestic light packaging”, and we do not have any reason to assume that Cadaqués inhabitants are less environmentally conscious that their fellow catalan inhabitants of the rest of the region. This brings to the striking conclusion that packaging added to the local results via the “pilot scheme” must have been very close to zero.

Let’s give this figure an error margin of ten percent, however: let’s assume that the test has brought 250 additional kg of material to what would anyhow have been recycled in the period.

The municipality however, has advised that due to this test the town is much cleaner. I don’t know about you, but I would love to live in a town where the city can be  considerably cleaner by collecting  250 kg more of packaging than the waste regularly collected in a nearly three month period!

Now let’s estimate the cost of this “pilot scheme”

To do this experiment, the promoters have used two recovery “reverse vending” machines. They have also set up a counting center in the vicinity of the town, which has an expensive installation, to count and sort packages (although not in a position to say whether the containers returned a deposit paid before) and proudly showed towards the end of the test by a senior officer of the Waste agency.

By the way, in a real system, a town of this size would never have a counting center installed. It would probably be some km away in a larger town, thus multiplying the cost of empty container transportation.

Marking of packaging with the famous sticker can only be done at the point of sale, as the distributor does not know a priori where to deliver the packages leaving the warehouse. Marking one by one a few thousand containers requires considerable effort in staff.

It has also been necessary to establish a shuttle to the counting center, requiring many trips. Why? On the one hand, manually collected packaging can be crushed only after being counted at the counting center. Furthermore, RVMs do compact packaging, but they have to be emptied quite often – I have read somewhere that every two hours at peak moments- In fact in our visit we could not return the containers in one of them because it was full, and had to wait to have an attendant to come and empty it, so we decided to switch to the other supermarket to get our ticket of 5 cents a piece. In a real scheme, there would be no one to empty the machines often, so the shop would have to set up storage place.

Apart from all this little logistical chaos, there was a notable effort of communication (brochures, stickers, files, flags, ads) – we should acknowledge that it is something DRS promoters master, after all this is but a PR exercise- complete with press conferences, visits of environmental organizations, journalists, parliamentarians, councilors, etc., a lot of money in travel, accommodation and entertainment expenses. Taking into account that the promoters do normally take all this people to Germany on a regular base to see the same machines in operation, however, they could even consider this a saving.

Almost a minor part was the money returned to consumers – 4500€- (although they had not paid it up front) and compensation to trade participants of three cents per container handled, around 2700 euros paid to merchants. They have also taken care of part of the waste tax of participating shops (probably not a significant figure) as an incentive to participation.

In short, it is not easy to assess accurately all these costs, but I will apply the criteria applied previously to estimate the budget for promoting the system and that no one has discussed yet: let us suppose that we had organized the experiment and estimate how would have cost with all items that we have described above. I estimate that the experiment has cost 250,000 euros.

At this point we have the advantage that the experiment is endorsed by the Catalan Waste Agency, a public body, and we are sure that in the final report of the project promoters will have to give a full account to the authorities, as well as to citizenship, not only of the quantities collected, but of the amount invested as well. That’s when we will see if we have estimated well, we have fallen short or have exceeded in the estimate.

If 90,000 packages have been recovered, collecting each package will have cost almost three euros. Let me say it again:  3€ each.

That means, if we take for example beverage cans, that the cost of collecting every can has been 1500 times the cost of channelling it through the current green dot system (witha curent recycling rate bove 86%) . We wonder what, if any, learning can be drawn form such a huge difference in cost.

One last point, we know more or less how much, but up to very recently we were not sure of who, did pay for it. We finally knew about this, quite far way away from Catalunya, at the Public Library in London, where the promoters of the Cadaques test spoke at a meeting organized by the promoters of the UK Deposit Alliance, an organization which is following the same steps in the UK, eg in Scotland, where they have started “reward for recycling” schemes -the public does not necessarily know that DRS requires paying in advance the subsequent “reward” they get when returning the used drinks package-

And yes, the Catalan speaker confirmed in London that manufacturers of the units which would be eventually sold to set up the system did pick up the bill of the Catalunya test.

To explain the title of this entry, I must explain that as the experiment was done in Catalunya, famous for its cava sparkling wines, there is a Spanish saying “do not waste cava, experiments should be done with soda”. As a good part of the containers recovered are soda containers, we honestly have to say that we never heard of such an expensive experiment with soda.

By the way my analysis of the previous “pilot” mentioined earlier is also available in this blog (only in Spanish, for the time being, at Proyectos piloto, la huella de carbono y el peligro de extrapolar (ni Depósito, ni Devolución, ni Retorno)

Un pensamiento en “Cadaques: experiments with soda can be expensive

  1. Pingback: Cadaqués: los experimentos con gaseosa pueden salir caros | Ecothinktank

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