Thursday, September 16, 2010

No deposit, no return

Back in the mid 60s I worked in an off-licence in London's Harrow Road. My job was to keep the shelves stocked and to take care of the empties. When a customer bought a bottle of beer he was charged 3d (a nominal but significant sum, probably equivalent to 50p today)for the bottle. When he brought the bottle back, he got his money back.
It was workable and there were no bottles or cans littering our streets.

I have a confession to make. When I was about 10 or 11 my friend and I would sneak over the wall of one of the pubs in our seaside town and steal empty pop bottles and then take them to a local shop and claim the deposit. I made a few bob and put it in a Post Office savings book. Of course I got caught. The pub landlord had seen me and waited until my next visit, catching me red-handed. I don't know which was worse, being caught, being handed over to my mum who beat me and then being told to wait until my dad got home...
He was working in London and didn't get home for almost a month. I lived in dreadful anticipation of the knock on the door from the police, and my father's return. It was a big deal. Don't steal.
Fast forward a few years and Schweppes became the first company to market "no deposit, no return" bottles, followed soon after by "Long Life" the first beer brewed specially for the can.
It was the Swinging 60s, a time of innovation and sweeping away the old. Yes it had its good side, but there were a few casualties along the way. The old breweries like Fremlins, Courage Barclays & Simmonds, Trumans and countless others were taken over and merged into a few conglomerates selling identikit fizzy beer.

Watneys Red Barrel. Ugh! I still recoil at the name.

Along with the innovation that was the Party Seven we had supermarkets selling beer, and they weren't interested in bottles with a deposit, so it all came to an end.
Over the years beer and soft drinks have become cheaper and cheaper in real terms, and the aluminium can and plastic bottle have become the preferred means of delivery.
The manufacturer used to have a vested interest in getting the bottles back. Like the old fashioned doorstep milk delivery, it was cheaper to take the bottles back, wash and reuse them than to keep buying new ones. However, that idea has gone the way of the doorstop milk delivery- consigned to history.
Single use bottles and cans can be found almost anywhere on the earth's surface. They are an eyesore and a menace to the environment. You can read about the soup-like sludge of plastic that is displacing the plankton in our oceans, and threatening the ecosystem, and you can also read about initiatives to ban the use of single-use plastic shopping bags. All good and commendable. I hardly ever take a supermarket plastic bag these days.
It didn't take long to educate me.

But what about the plastic bottles and aluminium cans that litter our streets and blight the landscape?

In today's Telegraph I read that Bill Bryson, author and honorary Englishman (and President of the Council for the Protection of Rural England) has proposed a return to the "1980s bottle deposit scheme". You can read all about it here:

About time too. Those of us who are old enough to remember the scheme are also old enough to remember when our streets were free from litter. However, while it's a nice idea and one that will have widespread approval, the manufacturers, distributers and retailers of these products will have something to say about it.

While I've been writing this blog I've been thinking about how a scheme like this could be made workable. Here's my suggestion, based upon my experiences.

First of all, you can't expect the retailers to take the empties back. I worked in retail for many years and it's hard enough dealing with one way traffic of goods into the stores without having empties cluttering the place up. There isn't the room, the time or the infrastructure. There has to be another way.
I'm a fan of small government so state control has to be kept to a minimum, so it has to be private enterprise. At the moment local councils collect domestic bottles and cans (but not from commercial premises). Each council negotiates their own contracts with recycling firms, which is why it's so hit and miss.
What's needed is some private enterprise (and a financial incentive from local and central government)
The government would charge a recycling levy on each bottle or can produced. The income from this would be used to buy the empties back. If someone can earn a few pence from picking up and returning an empty can to a central point (maybe one of the thousands of empty retail units that blight our towns)
The incentive is that the money is only paid on production of the empty bottle or can. Each collector can be given a swipe card where his cans are credited.
Instant job creation. Instant incentive to clean up the towns and cities.

OK loads of flaws. But's an idea.
And most of the people who claim to lead us have no idea.

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