Green ministers are facing their “first big test” since joining the Scottish Government amid fears from campaigners that the deposit return scheme for drinks cans and bottles could be delayed further.
Concern is growing that new circular economy minister Lorna Slater may be about to push the start of the initiative back further – possibly until March 2023.
In the run-up to the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, activists insisted that delivering deposit return on time “really is a make or break for the new government’s environmental reputation”.
With the scheme currently due to come into force from July 2022, it is also feared an eight-month delay could result in an additional 28 million cans and bottles being dumped as litter unnecessarily.
That figure is based on research for the Have You Got the Bottle? campaign, which estimated the Scottish system could reduce littering by as much as by 50,000 plastic bottles, 60,000 drinks cans, and 7000 glass bottles every day.
It has now been more than four years since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that a deposit return scheme would be introduced in Scotland – with the country the first part of the UK to commit to this.
Under the scheme, it is proposed that shoppers will pay an additional 20p charge when buying drinks in cans and bottles, with these fees refunded to them when they return the empty containers for recycling.
But its introduction has already been pushed back because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Scotland’s deposit return system is an important opportunity to change the way materials are used and to reduce our climate emissions. It will also change the way people think about waste.
“The scheme has already suffered a major delay, and any further delay will inevitably draw comparisons to the fiascos of the Scottish Parliament building and Edinburgh trams.”
She added: “This is the first big test of the Greens’ ability to deliver in government. Will they look to the successes of other countries, like Lithuania or the Netherlands, and deliver an ambitious deposit return system without further delay?
“Or will they be swayed by cautious civil servants and the vested interests of the supermarket sector?”
Slater recently told MSPs that the Scottish Government “recognise the significant impact that Covid-19 and the UK’s exit from the European Union have had on the drinks industry and other sectors with responsibility for delivering Scotland’s deposit return scheme” – with these comments sparking fears of another delay.
Catherine Gemmell, of the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland, said: “A deposit return system remains the simplest possible measure to help achieve a circular economy. If this can’t be delivered on time, after four years, what hope do we have for more ambitious measures in the future?”
She added: “Our volunteers have been cleaning up Scotland’s coasts and recording litter data throughout September. One group found 75 drinks containers in just ten-metres of beach, a stark reminder of the environmental cost of further delays to a deposit return system.”
Will Mackenzie, of Greenpeace, stated: “We know some elements of industry still think they can block deposit return in Scotland, and across the UK – they know that each delay here in Scotland reduces the likelihood that they will ever have to help clean up the litter they generate.
“A successful Scottish system, starting on time in July 2022, would put massive pressure on Boris Johnson to deliver a similar system for England.”
He continued: “Deposit return is a producer responsibility scheme, and every day ministers dither is making the public pay while letting polluting corporations off the hook.
“We see the scale of the problem measured by the tens of thousands of cans and bottles that would be littered unnecessarily, polluting land and sea, by the extra carbon costs in the year of COP26, and by the clean-up costs paid for by local government.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that delivering deposit return on time in July 2022 really is a make or break for the new government’s environmental reputation.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We remain fully committed to implementing Scotland’s deposit return scheme, which will be a UK first. It will increase recycling and cut littering, and help to meet Scotland’s world leading climate targets.
“Scotland’s scheme will be among the most environmentally ambitious and accessible in Europe, including tens of thousands of return points for plastic, metal and glass containers, as well as pick-ups for online deliveries.
“We will provide an update to Parliament and businesses shortly.”