How do container deposit schemes work

Around the world, demand is growing for countries to increase their recycling rates for bottles and cans, as a means to fight litter and ocean plastic and conserve scarce resources. To meet this challenge, many regions are considering container deposit schemes, which see up to almost 100% of all drink containers returned for recycling. Learn more about what container deposit schemes are and how they work.

By Wolfgang Ringel, Senior Vice President Governmental Affairs, TOMRA

Every minute, one million plastic bottles are bought around the world. That equated to more than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles sold globally in 2016, with that number estimated to rise 20% by 2021. 32% of all discarded plastic packaging ends up in nature, polluting communities and the world’s oceans. In fact, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. The volumes are so enormous that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. 

With this vast scale of plastic bottle production and consumption, how can we prevent and reduce the negative impacts that beverage container waste has on the planet? How can we recycle and reuse this material effectively, and how can society motivate people to return their used bottles and cans for recycling in the first place?

An increasingly popular, but far from new, solution is container deposit schemes. These programs achieve up to 40% higher collection rates than other collection methods for plastic, aluminum and glass beverage containers. In fact, TOMRA’s reverse vending machines for container collection – which operate in more than 40 markets with container deposit systems, for both refillable and non-refillable containers – received over 40 billion used beverage containers across 84,000 installations worldwide in 2019 alone. 

Here’s a simple guide to deposit return systems and why they are so successful for recycling used containers.

What is a container deposit scheme?


deposit return scheme infographic

Container deposit schemes work by adding a small extra deposit on top of the price of a beverage – such as those in plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans – which is refunded to the consumer when they return the empty drink container for recycling. Also known as bottle deposit schemes, deposit refund/return systems (DRS) or bottle bills, they are typically established through legislation passed by state or national governments. 

Container deposit schemes for non-refillable beverage containers have been around for several decades, and those for refillable containers for centuries, with early inceptions used particularly for glass collection. Today, these schemes are in place in 40 regions, including 10 US states, with the additional deposit value on drink containers ranging from €0.09 to €0.25.

(See the full version of this video, which also explains how container deposit systems are financed and interviews policy makers around the world.) 

people using reverse vending machine

To make the en masse return of bottles and cans more efficient and convenient, many container deposit schemes use automated ‘reverse vending machines’ (see left) to analyze and sort containers when they are collected for recycling and reuse. Reverse vending machines instantly count the number of containers returned, sort away ineligible containers, and pay out the correct deposit refund to recyclers – much faster than is possible through manual, human handling. 

Reverse vending machines can usually be found at convenient places such as supermarkets, allowing users to receive their refund in cash or as vouchers they can use in store. In some countries it is also possible to donate the deposit money to charity, direct from the reverse vending machine. Learn more here about reverse vending machines and how they work.

How container deposit schemes work around the world

Many countries around the world operate these schemes. Container deposit systems see up to almost 100% of all drink containers returned for recycling; no other waste collection system comes even close to such high return rates.

  • Norway: Norway has long been recognized as a trailblazer in container deposit schemes, with countries around the world replicating its deposit return model. Starting with TOMRA’s first innovative reverse vending machines in 1972, today return rates in Norway are at 97% for cans and 95% for PET plastic containers, with collections managed by scheme coordinator Infinitum.
  • Germany: The German market outperforms the rest of the world in beverage container recycling results, following the introduction of its container deposit scheme in 2003. Germany’s collection rate is extremely high, with approximately 97% of all plastic bottles returned (and 99% for cans).
  • Lithuania: Lithuania introduced its container deposit scheme in 2016, with the aim of reducing litter, cutting local government costs and boosting recycling rates. Prior to the introduction of this scheme, only a third of PET containers were collected (34%). Two years later, the country’s deposit initiative, which operates with TOMRA’s reverse vending machines, has seen return rates increase to 92%.
  • Canada:, In Canada, the first container deposit scheme rolled out in 1970, with nearly all provinces and territories featuring the programs today. Canadian provinces and territories that operate return programs recover 80% of non-refillable beverage containers sold, compared to an average of just 50% in the only jurisdiction that recovers containers through municipal curbside recycling programs.


Resource revolution

Calls are increasing around the world for other countries to follow suit, with the United Nations Environment Agency in December 2017 encouraging all nations to implement container deposit schemes. The Single-Use Plastics Directive adopted in 2019 by the Council of the European Union has set out for member states to collect 90% of all plastic bottles by 2029, with an interim goal of 77% by 2025, through initiatives such as container deposit schemes. Regions such as Scotland, Portugal, England & Wales and more states in Australia are set to introduce container deposit schemes in the next three years.

With our planet facing a waste crisis, we need to live more sustainability and recycle more efficiently. TOMRA’s mission is to lead the way in the resource revolution and change consumer and manufacturer behaviour. Container deposit schemes provide one part of the solution to changing attitudes around empty drink containers and improving recycling rates.