It’s an often-used phrase that something represents a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Now, I like to think I’ve lived a little and hopefully have a lot more to come (!) and a lot more to give to the resources sector in the UK and Europe. But maybe I’m not the only one right now thinking….once in a lifetime…..yes fine, but will it be mine?! I am referring of course to the never-ending story that is the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in the United Kingdom. This is a policy with a track record of false starts, false hope even. No doubt discussed on numerous occasions in the past, I can recall UK Government policy statements in the early 2000’s, but it only became a true focus when in March 2018 the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove announced a consultation on the topic, stating “It is absolutely vital we act now to tackle this threat and curb the millions of plastic bottles a day that go unrecycled”.
Five years later and you can be excused for questioning just how ‘vital’ that need to act really is, Mr Gove himself has of course long since moved on from that role. However, we should not overlook the activities of the Scottish Government who some consider the trailblazers for this policy (if it’s possible to have trailblazers for something still at the conceptual stage), when in September 2017 the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed Scotland to implementation. In early 2023, having weathered the headwinds of Brexit and covid, DRS remains an opportunity setting its own timeline, as the politics of today rides roughshod over the promises of yesterday. Of course, democratic processes are to be respected, you only need to lift your gaze to the horizon to see examples of what happens when these principles are not followed or mandated. But that being said, democracy can be a slow process, based as it is on a consensual approach, consensual to the prevailing political leadership.
DRS has also been a policy dogged by the question of when is the right time to act. Outside the UK in the last five years countries as diverse as Latvia, Slovakia and the Netherlands have introduced a DRS, with numerous others in the advanced stages of implementation. In fact recent draft proposals by the European Union propose to mandate DRS by 2029 unless a viable alternative that delivers 90% recycling is implemented. Of course, this is a very country-specific topic influenced by historic systems and infrastructure, cultures even, but there comes a point when you have to bite the bullet and go for it. Sadly in the UK, we seem to have done the complete opposite and got the bullet out of the packaging but not decided what to do with it! Which in my view is the worst of all worlds as it casts a doubt over the future of UK collection system development and all the industry, employment and investment connected to it.
In my lifetime, I’ve been privileged to have chaired various organisations in our sector such as the Resource Association, LARAC even, and most recently ALUPRO, our aluminium industry organisation – and have always sought to see ‘the bigger picture’. As it stands today, for me, despite the differences in approaches (launch timeline; the inclusion of glass (in-scope in Scotland and Wales only), the appointment of separate scheme administrators, the approach to setting the deposit level, and the approach on labelling!), the bigger picture has to be to knuckle down and deliver.
At Novelis, we have been long-time supporters for well-designed DRS’, having witnessed its success in driving up the quantity and quality of the precious used aluminium cans we want to capture in our circular production processes. So, for all concerned I hope we’re able to finally grasp this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity with both hands, and that it’s in my lifetime in which we do it!