Retailers in Scotland are worried that the country’s deposit return scheme for bottles and cans could cause problems for the independent trade.
The scheme, which is meant to go live next August, will levy a 20p surcharge on most drinks containers, which retailers would be obliged to recycle.
Many independent traders agree with the core aim of the scheme, which is to boost Scotland’s recycling rates. But they say that both the drinks industry and the Scottish population in general need more clarity about how it will work in practice.
The scheme applies to producers, importers and anyone marketing or selling drinks “packaged in a single-use container made from PET plastic, glass, steel or aluminium sized between 50ml and three litres,” according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
Retailers will be obliged to check that their suppliers are registered with the DRS. Although most Scottish drinks producers and importers will be aware of the scheme, it’s far from clear how many of their counterparts in other parts of the UK yet understand it or are preparing to register.
There is also confusion over how English, Welsh and Northern Irish suppliers will adjust their prices for Scottish customers to incorporate the 20p levy.
Archie McDiarmid (pictured) of Luvians in St Andrews took part in a government-organised factfinding trip to Norway around eight years ago to observe the successful DRS scheme there. He supports the Scottish DRS but is critical of the way the final plans are being handled.
“It seems to have got very confused in its execution versus what I think originally were some fairly laudable and sensible goals,” he says.
Richard Meadows of Great Grog in Edinburgh says one supplier has predicted that the DRS will result in the on-shelf price of drinks rising by 40p a bottle.
“I’m really hoping it won’t happen,” he says. “It’s an extra cost to the consumer. An extra tax on Scottish consumers at exactly the moment they don’t need it.”
It’s expected that many retailers will install cashpoint-sized “reverse vending machine” devices, similar to the ones seen in Norway, that scan barcodes on bottles and cans that customers recycle, and automatically refund the 20p deposit.
Meadows can sense problems with this, even though he says his premises are big enough to accommodate such machines.
“The consumer is going to have to get in their car and find the shop. And if the machine’s not working, they’ll have to find another shop, and they’re just going to dump the empty bottles. It’s going to be like a charity shop outside,” he says.
McDiarmid at Luvians wonders if smaller stores will automatically be at a disadvantage when it comes to recycling. In Norway, he says, recycling facilities tend to be “the size of shipping containers”.
“Obviously, those tend to get parked outside big supermarkets. So if you’re making a choice about where you’re going to do the wine shopping, and you’ve got to get rid of 20 or 30 wine bottles, it’s much more practical to go to the supermarket – and then we’ve basically driven people from the independents.”
“It’s the licensing free-for-all revisited”
“In general I’m absolutely for this as a way to lower emissions, but with Biffa as the main contractor it’s going to be tough going. The start date in August will be hard on those of us in Edinburgh as the festival already has the roads gridlocked most of the day. As with the licensing change in the mid 2000s, it will have been the lobbyists for supermarkets crafting the legislation, I suspect.”
Andrew Lundy, Vino, Edinburgh
“There has been very little outreach to independents. I remember the new licensing laws coming in and quite frankly the council were not sure how to implement those either, and even now the detail is a free-for-all. Which is where I think this scheme will end up, as they have not looked at the detail.
“Right now we are not concerning ourselves until closer to the bell as they still have a lot to sort out.
“How do we deal with bottles that are sent to our wholesale customers? If our customers come back to us with their bottles, how on the high street do we store all this empty glass in small shops already at bursting point? How do we ensure that the bottles were bought from us and we don’t just become a recycling point handing out cash?
“Overall, a good concept. Just not rolled out sensibly.”
Douglas Wood, WoodWinters, Bridge of Allan
“Of course it’s a good idea. Of course the communication about this hasn’t been great. And we don’t know how it’s going to work, we have no idea. I have no idea. The customers have no idea. Do the suppliers have any idea? Do the producers have any idea?
“One big problem seems to me that this will favour homogenisation of packaging which will then favour larger producers, suppliers and retailers. An awful lot of onus seems to fall on the retailer.”
Phoebe Weller, Valhalla’s Goat, Glasgow
“I can’t say whether merchants are in favour of the scheme in principle – I probably am, but I don’t see the need for it – but everyone I speak to think it’s flawed.
“I’m definitely not ready. I think there’s a multitude of questions still to be answered and multiple practical problems to resolve.
“I’ve spoken to a number of suppliers. They certainly don’t understand how it’s going to work and those suppliers based in England, that’s most of them, haven’t heard anything about it. As for the public: they’re borderline unaware of it, and think the Scottish government should be concentrating on other matters.”
Euan McNicoll, McNicoll & Cairnie, Dundee