Deposit Return Scheme or Diabolical Ruddy Shambles?

In a previous existence I spent much of my time advising the licensed trade. When it came to law reforms affecting licensees, many hours were spent trying to persuade governments of the unworkability of many a scheme, and hundreds more ranting after those protestations were ignored.

Lorna Slater MSP

These days I live an untrammelled life, the stress largely caused by the demands of producing articles on time for your benefit, dear reader. Thus the ins and outs of the Scottish Government's proposed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) had passed me by. This is the brainchild of Lorna Slater, Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity. The idea behind it is to try to ensure that single use bottles and cans are recycled. Couched in those simple terms, who could oppose such a notion? It involves a deposit being paid on each item, trickling down the pyramid of producer, wholesaler, retailer and consumer, ultimately being refunded when the bottle or can is recycled.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Indeed, as the Government's own literature states, the flow of deposit will be cost neutral for all parties. So why are all three candidates for the leadership of the SNP calling for the scheme, at the very least, to be postponed?

Let's start with the impact on sundry households. Googling at random, I see a 24 pack of Diet Coke advertised at £9.49. When the scheme comes in, make that £14.29, after you've added the deposit of 20p per can. Sell that to a cash strapped mum with three kids, all of whom want a drink with their packed lunch. Shouldn't be drinking fizzy drinks, you say? Well it's exactly the same story with water. But, Ms Slater will point out, she'll get the money back. Yes, provided the kids remember to bring them home: and here's the rub, to bring them home undamaged. Because if you crush the can you'll probably damage the bar code. No bar code to read, no money back.

Or let's say you're an old lady in a rural area. You can't drive any more, but Tesco deliveries are a boon. But will your cheery delivery driver pick up your empties and give you back your 20p deposits? I hae my doots.

Many local authorities provide separate recycling bins at present and make money from this. Will they continue when the scheme goes live? And if they don't what will happen to the empty jars of jam or mustard or mayonnaise, which are outwith the scope of the scheme?

Obviously, large licensed premises are the biggest users. You've probably seen their giant bins for glass. The Government paper tells us that these businesses "will be at an advantage" as they won't have to pay for trade waste. Cloud cuckoo or what? The scheme depends on the bar code, triggering repayment of deposits. So don't smash your bottles. And do tell me how all of these thousands of specimens are to be stored pristine and taken to a return point to have their barcodes read?

Bear in mind that the DRS will apply to every single use drinks bottle sold in Scotland regardless of where it was produced, Can you really see small French wine producers adding different labels for the Scottish market? Writing in The Times recently, Alex Massie highlighted the plight of a Scottish wine merchant, prominent in his field but still, in relative terms, a smallish business. He told Massie,  it's likely that the bottles we import will require not one but two separate stickers with separate bar codes. He is facing the cost of having to employ someone to create these, and to attach them to each and every bottle.

Already some small craft brewers in England and Wales have indicated that they will simply stop supplying the Scottish market. Corner shop owners are in despair. Not only is there the bottle issue, their till receipts will have to identify deposits, and there is lack of clarity as to whether they themselves will be required to be a collection point for the empties. Have you ever seen the stock room of such a place? Barely enough room to swing a rat, never mind store hundreds of empty drink bottles. (Just imagine the hygiene issues in the summer.)

The irony is that, at present, 95% of commercial glass waste and 60+% of domestic is recycled. But delay it pending some answers? Nay. La Slater has pronounced that no one with any credibility would seek to postpone the scheme. So 7 August looms. To this relatively uninformed outsider it does seem that there are a good few questions which remain unanswered. I asked top Scottish licensing lawyer Janet Hood to comment. I received a two word reply. Utter madness.

I am grateful to Janet Hood of Janet Hood Training & Consulting for her input. Any errors are mine and mine alone.


  1. Gordon Smith on 8th March 2023 at 8:12 pm

    Brilliantly written Tom, all the pitfalls expertly explained. Why oh why has this piece of legislation not been thought through 🤔. Answers please, not to me, but Lorna Slater.

  2. The Flying Scotsman on 8th March 2023 at 10:21 pm

    I agree – a very good analysis of the ramifications, unintended consequences and pitfalls, typical of “make a quick political buck” schemes. I’ve just come back from a trade fair in Nuremberg Germany where recycling is well established. At the giant exhibition centre, glass and plastic bottles came with a token which you would hand back with the empty. You’d get back 50c. Tea/coffee etc came in handsome plastic tumblers at a 2 euro premium. The 2 euros cash were refunded, simply when handing back the tumblers. No tokens involved. I clocked the system early on, and quickly collected up 4 of these discarded tumblers, making a tidy profit. Whether German recycling actually works and delivers easily its aims, I couldn’t say. Certainly it did deliver for me!

    • Tom Johnston on 9th March 2023 at 7:09 am

      Fly(ing) Scotsman indeed!

  3. Michael Greenlaw on 9th March 2023 at 2:04 pm

    Hi Tom, to answer the question in your title – Deposit Return Scheme.
    Where there’s a will – there’s a way.
    The cash strapped mum will get her cash back, the children will have learned not to crush their cans.
    Your small craft brewers in England and Wales, if they want the business (and who doesn’t these days) know what they have to do – likewise your French wine producer – if it costs us a bit more, it’s a price worth paying.
    After all – Where there’s a will – there’s a way.

    • Tom Johnston on 9th March 2023 at 4:52 pm

      Michael, I love the way you see the good in everything. I do wish I shared your optimism. At the moment I just think this is a good idea, but badly thought through.

  4. Mark Baird on 10th March 2023 at 8:10 am

    Simply ill thought through virtue signalling from a Green party who oppose economic growth and shed no tears if a profit making business goes under, (taking jobs and wages with it). All my cans and bottles are already recycled via kerbside collection. If DRS negates the need for such collections; will I get a rebate on my council tax as it’s a service I currently pay for????

    • Tom Johnston on 10th March 2023 at 9:31 am

      And I’m guessing that Edinburgh Council will make a reasonable sum to augment their coffers. That will disappear.

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