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Deposit return schemes charge customers a small extra fee for single-use containers, which they can get back by returning the container to the seller or a collection point so it can be recycled.
While the administrations in all four parts of the UK are developing deposit return schemes, there is disagreement about whether they should include glass containers.
This Insight looks at the legal framework for return schemes, why there is disagreement over glass, and role of the UK Internal Market Act.
How do deposit return schemes work?
In a deposit return scheme (DRS), consumers pay a deposit when they buy a single-use container (normally for drinks). This can be refunded when the empty container is returned.
In existing schemes in other countries, consumers can either return containers through a reverse vending machine or manually to a retailer to get their deposit back.
The aim is to increase the recycling of commonly littered items.
How have UK administrations prepared for DRSs?
Waste and resources are devolved policy areas. The Scottish Government has been developing its own DRS, whereas the UK Government, Welsh Government and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland are developing joint DRS proposals.
In Scotland, section 84 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 allows ministers to make regulations to introduce a DRS. Later regulations created the more detailed legal framework.
The Scottish scheme was expected to begin in July 2022, but it has been delayed for several reasons, including because of “challenges that the pandemic and Brexit have placed upon businesses”. In June 2023 the Scottish Government said its scheme will be delayed again, until at least October 2025.
For England, Wales and Northern Ireland, section 54 and schedule 8 of the Environment Act 2021 allow the relevant minister to make regulations establishing a DRS. A more detailed legal framework has not yet been made. The Government plans to begin the scheme on 1 October 2025.
What materials will be included?
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a January 2023 joint government response to a joint consultation confirmed that steel and aluminium cans and plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, ‘PET’) bottles would be included in all schemes.
Glass bottles will not be included in schemes in England and Northern Ireland because of increased “complexity and challenge” and “additional consumer inconvenience”.
Glass will be included in the Welsh DRS, however. This was because, “against a higher baseline recycling rate the inclusion of glass provides an overall better rate of return from the economic impact assessment of the scheme in Wales.”
The Scottish scheme was expected to include steel and aluminium cans and plastic and glass bottles, but glass has been ruled out, for now, under UK Internal Market Act restrictions.
Why is the UK Internal Market Act relevant?
The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 means that (in general) goods that can be sold or recognised in one part of the UK should be able to be sold or recognised in any other part, regardless of what the law in that other part of the UK says.
The UK Government’s July 2020 white paper on the UK internal market explained that having different DRS schemes across the UK could cause complexities affecting how labelling, costs and reverse vending machines would work.
What are pros and cons of including glass?
The glass industry has argued against including it in the DRS, saying that it would increase cost and complexity by including a heavier material that breaks easily and can be difficult to transport and store safely.
However, environmental groups such as Plastic Planet and City to Sea have favoured including glass, arguing that it would reduce the environmental impact of glass litter and increase recycling rates of a widely used material.
Will glass be included in the Scottish DRS?
The Scottish Government applied to the UK Government for an exclusion for its DRS from the Internal Market Act provisions. The Scottish Government hoped that the exclusion would allow it to begin its own scheme, including glass, from March 2024 (earlier than the joint DRS in the rest of the UK).
In May 2023 the UK Government granted Scotland a temporary exclusion (until the DRS schemes start in the rest of the UK), with conditions attached. It would cover plastic bottles and aluminium and steel cans only, and it would not cover glass. The UK Government said it could not justify divergence on glass because of the added cost and complexity for the businesses involved in the scheme.
Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, wrote to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 2 June 2023 setting out his concerns about the UK Government’s decision. Mr Yousaf said the removal of glass would make the scheme less financially viable for those running it.
On 7 June 2023 the Scottish Government published a statement confirming it would delay the DRS until October 2025 at the earliest. The statement did not explicitly address whether glass would be included, but it did say that the scheme would be “more limited” than originally intended.
If any future scheme would diverge from the DRSs in the rest of the UK, the Scottish Government might have to seek a further Internal Market Act exclusion.
What about glass in the Wales DRS?
The Welsh Government has said it expects to be able to retain glass in its DRS and that its plans to include it have not changed, despite the UK Government decision not to include glass in Scotland’s UK Internal Market Act exclusion.
The UK Government has not commented on whether including glass in the Welsh DRS would need a UK Internal Market Act exemption.
What happens next?
All parts of the UK are now planning to introduce a DRS from October 2025. There remain questions about which schemes will include glass. Any disputes between the devolved administrations and the UK Government would be resolved through the dispute mechanism set out in the Resources and waste: provisional common framework or by the courts.
In June 2023, various drinks industry bodies decided to withdraw from voluntarily funding Circularity Scotland, the Scottish DRS administrator, because of “a high degree of political uncertainty”. Circularity Scotland later went into administration.
The British Soft Drinks Association has said it will seek compensation from the Scottish Government for the money its members spent preparing for the scheme, which they had originally expected would include glass bottles.
About the author: Louise Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in environment policy, air quality and waste.