Associate Feature: Message in a bottle
“I can’t keep walking on broken glass.” The complaint (metaphorically) expressed in Annie Lennox’s enduring pop-rock classic is about to be tackled on Scotland’s streets by the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) that’s due to go live in March 2024 and which is, according to the Scottish Government, “designed to meet our unique needs, to tackle our throwaway culture and help protect our environment for generations to come”.
It’s an imperative driven by ambitious plans to become a net-zero society by 2045, five years before the rest of the UK. While the country will also be the first in the UK to implement a DRS scheme, the technology has been bringing significant benefits to other regions, such as Scandinavia, the United States and Australia for years and is now a part of everyday life in many countries in which shoppers are already familiar with taking their reusable bags to the supermarket.
Scotland will have a centrally administered return-to-retail scheme, employing reverse vending machines (RVMs) as key to technology that will involve 20p added to the price of single-use drinks containers which will then be refunded when these are returned to the retailer.
TOMRA, a multinational company based in Norway has been at the forefront of that advance in recycling since 1972, manufacturing the RVMS that it’s now installing across Scotland.
The company has an impressive track record: it already operates in 60 markets worldwide, with an installed base of approximately 80,000 machines and facilitates the collection of more than 45 billion empty bottles and cans annually.
Ryan Buzzell, Managing Director UK and Ireland and a board member at TOMRA, explains: “We are already here and active in the UK, and in Scotland we’re providing that technology directly to the retail community.
“We’ve already forged partnerships with supermarket groups such as Lidl and Aldi here with almost 100 machines already installed in anticipation of the commencement of the scheme,” he says, adding that TOMRA anticipates growing its staff to around 80 in Scotland before expanding further into England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have signalled their intentions to commence DRS schemes by October 2025.
“TOMRA has a wide range of reverse vending solutions that can accommodate all sizes and sorts of types of retail environments. For instance, we have a small machine –that’s suitable for smaller stores with lower volumes – while the range extends to the bigger, almost industrial scale machines used in the largest supermarkets.”
In Europe, DRS has been established for many years, particularly in Scandinavia and Germany, and Buzzell says that return-to-retail designed schemes are achieving between a 92 per cent and 98 per cent return rate of containers.
“They’ve proved to be highly effective and a great environmental solution as we move toward a more circular economy,” he says. DRS also has additional benefits to the retailers involved, with a recent survey by TOMRA showing that 87 per cent of drink container recyclers spend their deposit return in store.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing a macro trend where economies are starting to treat waste as a valuable, recyclable resource and DRS is a key enabler in keeping those materials in the local economy,” says Buzzell.
“The benefits of implementing of DRS include the positive impact it has on job creation and the value of the materials staying in the market – rather than going to landfill or incineration – as well as the welcome environmental benefits to local communities regarding litter reduction.”
The range of materials DRS in Scotland will deal with include the familiar PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles, aluminium cans and glass bottles – and when it comes to returning those containers, Buzzell explains that TOMRA’s technology has 360-degree, camera-based reading so that the existing barcodes can be recognised.
“TOMRA technology is also able to detect the shape, material type and in some cases the weight of the container, depending on what’s required by the particular scheme,” he says.
Plans for DRS in Scotland have, of course, faced some challenges, including the announcement in April that its implementation which was due to begin in August, will now be delayed until March 2024.
Buzzell accepts that such projects are frequently the subject of debate during the early stages of DRS, something he experienced in Australia where the company had to address state-specific challenges accompanied by time pressures and Covid-19 restrictions.
However, he points out that he led the development of TOMRA’s business there, beginning in New South Wales and growing it to position Australia as the world’s first “container deposit continent”. In the US, where he joined the company in 2005, TOMRA now operates in every active deposit state in the country.
He’s also encouraged by the level of public support in Scotland. “A recent study showed that more than 70 per cent of the population support the implementation of DRS and from our perspective, we’re here to provide the appropriate solutions to retailers who are mandated by the legislation to take back the products that they’re selling.”
Underlining his personal commitment to the project in Scotland and the UK, he says that for the foreseeable future he and his family will be based in Edinburgh – though he agrees that has had to acclimatise somewhat since assuming the start-up role for the UK and Ireland in February this year after spending three years in a rather balmier Sydney.
Now he and the company are energetically engaging with a broad range of stakeholders, both in industry and government. “Our colleagues are putting a lot of effort into supporting our regional customers and we have developed a machine that’s designed specifically for the Scottish market and aimed at smaller retailers,” he says.
During the early stages of DRS those retailers must often explain to their customers just how the scheme operates. “The scheme puts retailers at the heart of delivering huge improvements for our environment and we’re exploring how best to support them in making the right choices that benefit both their business and the environment. By providing videos, animations, and other resources we can help encourage and support them through the transition to deposit return”.
And with DRS, Buzzell firmly believes that seeing is believing. Once established, the concept quickly gains momentum, something with which he was impressed during his experience in Australia, with New South Wales implementing the first modern scheme in Australia, a move followed swiftly by the other states.
He is also inviting MSPs, especially those on the Net Zero and Economy Committees, to visit TOMRA’s facilities in West Lothian, to underline the company’s significant investment in Scotland, how the scheme will function and the technology behind the company’s reverse vending machines.
“And we’re looking forward to a briefing session for MSPs in the Scottish Parliament on June 8 where we will demonstrate how our international experience will help ensure we can implement a high-performing scheme here.
“TOMRA has consistently been at the forefront of championing circular economy initiatives by providing the technology to make that possible, particularly with beverage containers and as we speak there are already installations in place across Scotland.
“We’re continuing to recruit and hire locally and that’s testament to what we believe will be landmark developments over the coming months and years – not just in Scotland, but across the UK.”
This article is sponsored by TOMRA