The grey box that stands at the entrance of a Morrisons supermarket in north London isn’t much to look at, but some say it could offer a solution to our out-of-control plastic bottle addiction.
This branch of Morrisons in Wood Green is one of a number of supermarkets and retailers around the UK to trial reverse vending machines for plastic bottles, encouraging shoppers to feed in their empties in exchange for store credit. It may seem like a novel idea, but such machines are already in use in 38 countries, and are proven to drive up return rates of bottles by as much as 98 percent. In contrast, the UK currently only recycles 43 percent of the maddening 13 billion plastic bottles we go through every single year.
Back at Morrisons, I’m deciphering the instructions on the reverse vending machine’s electronic screen when I hear a voice behind me: “Oh, is it working again? I didn’t bring my bottles!” Lisa puts down her shopping bag of cat food and crackers and explains. You feed the bottle in – it has to have a barcode or it won’t register – and you get 50 points, equivalent to 5p, on your Morrisons loyalty card. You can only put through 20 bottles at a time, and you can only credit one per shop. But, Lisa adds conspiratorially, “you can just do separate shops at the till, and get more money off that way.”
Reverse vending machines in mature markets don’t tend to have such caps but it’s common among the supermarkets in the testing phase, both in response to the technology as well as users’ feedback. Most UK supermarkets trialling the vending machines haven’t released numbers yet, but Iceland reports collecting over a million bottles in just over a year.
Lisa is clearly a fan, but are reverse vending machines really the solution to our plastic bottle problem? Each of us currently throws away an average of 150 water bottles every single year, making up half of the UK’s plastic burden. I wonder if our energy should be focused on building a national water refill network, instead of shoring up a bad system.
Dr Rachael Rothman, associate director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, thinks reverse vending machines are a positive step. “But it would be better if we had them for reuse schemes, rather than just recycling,” she says. Reuse schemes in European countries use glass for soft drink bottles because glass can be sterilised and refilled, just like milk bottles. “But in the UK we usually have mechanical recycling, where you chop up [plastic bottles] and melt them, reforming them back into new plastic products. This is quite an energy-intensive process. But obviously, [all] recycling saves us from using more fossil fuels to make new plastic.”
Changing the UK’s bottles from plastic to glass would be a major operation, and a big cultural shift. Recycling what we currently use is the lower hanging fruit. The UK government plans to introduce a national reverse vending machine system linked to a deposit return scheme. When you buy something in a bottle, you would pay a small fee similar to the 5p plastic bag charge, and get it back when you take the empty bottle to a vending machine. The scheme is scheduled for rollout in England and Wales for 2023, behind Scotland which expects to go live by 2021. As well as encouraging recycling, such return schemes also generate an informal bottle collection economy, allowing anyone to collect discarded bottles in exchange for cash.
Truls Haug, UK managing director of TOMRA, the company that supplies the reverse vending machine at the Wood Green Morrisons, agrees with Rothman that we should aim to use a lot less plastic. “Reverse vending machines don't solve everything but at least they’re solving part of the problem, and we need to start somewhere,” he says, expressing some Scandinavian pragmatism in his crisp, Norwegian-accented English. “In deposit scheme markets, we’ve seen it educates people, and they recycle more in general.”
TOMRA, which built the world’s first reverse vending machine in Norway in 1972, has grown in the UK and southern Europe in recent years due to the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, which mandates that 90 percent of bottles are collected by 2029 and more recycled plastic to be used in packaging. While the UK already has kerbside collection for plastic, Haug explains that this is actually low-quality recycling: “You end up having to downcycle because the materials are contaminated – the plastic isn’t clean enough to be reused as food packaging.” A reverse vending machine, on the other hand, scans barcodes so it can separate the different kinds of plastic, delivering it to recycling centres ready to use. Kerbside recycling arrives mixed up and often covered in food, requiring labour-intensive sorting.
Recycling isn’t always a simple equation, and plastic can still be a good material in the right circumstances. “There’s been calls to swap plastic wrap for cardboard [for certain food packaging], but to make that amount of cardboard gives off more CO2 than making the plastic,” says Rothman. Similarly, ‘bio’ plastic is a classic example of greenwashing: “To make plastic from a plant takes far more energy than making plastic from oil.” This complexity makes it difficult for consumers to make good choices. Norway solved this problem by giving tax reliefs to genuinely green products, incentivising manufacturers to make better choices on behalf of consumers.
Haug informs me that right now, UK packaging made of 100-percent recycled plastic will likely have come from a reverse vending machine in Europe – a fact you can either see as bureaucracy gone mad, or a solid case for why the UK needs its own bottle return scheme.
The reverse vending machine trials currently running at UK supermarkets are a limited version of what a national bottle fee system would look like, but even people who don’t care much about the odd 5p seem to appreciate the machines as a tool to go green.
This seems to be the case over in Canary Wharf, where a reverse vending machine sits prominently next to a Waitrose. While in Wood Green, people arrive with IKEA bags full of empties, this machine seems to operate mostly as a recycling bin – someone has left their credit note in the machine when I get there.
Richard, who works opposite at Lola’s Cupcakes, says this happens a lot. “People use it, but it’s usually just the one bottle. I’ve left the ticket myself as it’s not that useful,” he says. “It’s only redeemable against a soft drink at this one newsagent.” As Canary Wharf has recycling bins on most corners, the machine is arguably more of a PR tool for the estate’s plastic-free campaign. But it seems to be working. “I’ve seen people come with bags on the weekend, bringing their kids and telling them about recycling,” says Richard’s colleague Frankie. “The kids really like feeding in the bottles.”
Of course, as the climate crisis becomes more urgent with each passing day, the responsibility to act falls on more than just recycling-savvy individuals.
“We have a real opportunity on our hands. There's willingness from the public who’re prepared to change,” says Rothman. She points to governments and corporations as the ones who need to help people take this willingness forward: “What we need now is to be brave and make the changes.”