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Deposit return schemes for collecting drink containers for recycling

Demand for single-use cans and bottles continues to grow every year. Most of these containers are used only once before being discarded, ending up in our oceans, streets and landfills. Deposit return schemes (DRSs) for bottles and cans play a vital part in preventing this, by offering a financial incentive for consumers to return their used containers for recycling. 

(See the full version of this video, which also explains how deposit return schemes are financed and interviews policymakers around the world.)

What is a deposit return scheme?

Container deposit return schemes work by adding a small deposit on top of the price of a beverage – such as those in plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans – which is refunded to the consumer when they return the empty bottle or can for recycling. Think of it as buying the beverage, but borrowing the container. These programs are also known as container deposit systems or bottle bills. 

Deposit return schemes are typically established through legislation passed by state or national governments.

How does a deposit return scheme work? 

Deposit return schemes follow a simple four-step process: 

Step 1 and 2 DRSStep 3 and 4 DRS

*In many cases it is actually deposit “system operators” that arrange for the transport of containers, but these entities are still typically funded by beverage distributors.

Why are deposit return schemes successful?

There are two main reasons deposit return schemes succeed in increasing recycling rates and reducing litter. 

  • The public has a financial incentive to recycle: Deposit return schemes provide a financial incentive for consumers to return drink containers. This communicates that containers have a value, rather than being viewed as trash. Deposit return schemes have been shown to reduce beverage litter between 30-84%, depending on the deposit value.1 The results of the financial incentive are clear. For example, while the U.S. national recycling rate has stagnated for decades around 34%, high-performing deposit return schemes routinely collect 90% or more of containers for recycling.2 3
  • Self-sorting leads to high quality recycling: By separating bottles and cans for recycling through a deposit scheme, beverage containers are collected without contamination from other types of waste in a household recycling bin. This ensures containers can be recycled into new bottles and cans, rather than used for lower quality uses such as landfill cover. This reduces reliance on raw materials needed to produce new beverage containers. This is a process known as closed-loop recycling, which TOMRA calls keeping materials in the Clean Loop.

Which countries operate a deposit return scheme?

 Over 60 regions around the world operate a deposit return scheme. These includes Norway, Germany, Lithuania, several Australian states, 10 US states, nearly all of Canada, and more. 

Calls are increasing around the world for other countries to follow suit, with the United Nations Environment Program in 2017 encouraging nations to implement bottle bills. The Single-Use Plastics Directive adopted in 2019 by the European Union has set a target for member states to collect 90% of all plastic bottles by 2029, which experts say is difficult to achieve without a container deposit system.4 

Regions such as Scotland, England & Wales, Slovakia, Portugal and more states in Australia are set to introduce deposit return schemes in the coming years.

Fact Sheet: DRS Reduces Litter,” Reloop. September 2020.
2MSW Recycling and Composting Rates 1960-2017,” EPA.gov. Accessed on September 14 2020 via https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/   
3Deposit Systems for One-Way Beverage Containers – Global Overview,” Reloop. 2018. https://reloopplatform.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/BOOK-Deposit-Global-27-APR2018.pdf 
4“PET Market in Europe: State of Play,” Eunomia. 2020.