The Debate: Should Australia have a national container deposit scheme? (Part 2)
There have been long running calls for a container deposit system (CDS) in Australia since the introduction of disposable drink containers in the 1970s. As these flooded the market, the litter plague quickly overwhelmed parks, creeks and public spaces.
Governments and industry responded with anti-litter campaigns, effectively blaming the consumer for the consequences of developing the throwaway container. The clean-up responsibilities were shunted onto local councils and ratepayers.
Today the problem is far from solved and is being exacerbated by plastic bottles that can break up into 10,000 smaller pieces adding to the toxic microplastic load in the marine environment.
In 2003 we began another campaign. Our aim was a national CDS or at least a growing number of state schemes. The big beverage companies, like Coca-Cola and Lion, were determined to oppose us. Flushed with millions of dollars, they were confident they could overcome another community effort, and deploy their financial and political capital to manipulate government. Recent revelations confirm that whenever a government seriously thought about a CDS, these companies threatened attack ads during election campaigns (in previous Western Australia and New South Wales elections and again in late 2014 in New South Wales).
Nevertheless, community support grew (polls showed public support in the high 80 percent area) and the Boomerang Alliance (hosted by the Total Environment Centre) grew from nine allies to 34.
The roadblocks were numerous – governments (and industry) pressed for a national ‘packaging covenant’. It was a weak agreement with industry, ostensibly created to ward off regulation. Study after study was commissioned, which conveniently dismissed CDS on economic grounds, overstating costs and understating benefits such as environmental gains, jobs and charity income.
One bright spot was the unanimous support in the Northern Territory Parliament for a container deposit law. It started operation in 2012, and continues today despite one interruption from a procedural court challenge by Coke, Lion and Schweppes.
The pressure came back onto New South Wales. Our campaign was incredibly intensive, as was the industry’s. But this time we had great support from Environment Minister, Rob Stokes and on Saturday 21 February 2015 at Coogee Beach, after 12 years of dogged effort, the Premier Mike Baird and Stokes announced that New South Wales would begin a CDS on 1 July 2017 – the “best CDS in the world’’. And the Australian Labor Party (ALP) opposition supported the decision.
But as the months went by it became apparent this was not the end of the battle. The Government had agreed to consider an industry alternative, called Thirst for Good – essentially a litter-collecting model. The New South Wales Government is poised to make a final decision in April.
“Today the problem is far from solved and is being exacerbated by plastic bottles that can break up into 10,000 smaller pieces adding to the toxic microplastic load in the marine environment.
The scheme being proposed by environmentalists is drawn from those considered the best around the world. Beverage suppliers would be obliged to add a fixed amount, being the deposit, to the price of each regulated beverage container and to provide a refund for that amount to anyone who returned the empty container to an authorised collection point. There are several options for returning containers, including:
- redeeming the container through a reverse vending machine
- taking the container to a community recycling centre
- continuing to place their containers in their kerbside recycling system – the containers would be captured and redeemed, with the refund offsetting the cost of council waste services, which households pay through their rates, and
- giving their containers to a local school or charity.
It’s broadly similar to the existing schemes in South Australia and the Northern Territory, but modernised to eliminate some serious inefficiencies such as multiple coordinators and a lack of automation.
We estimate several thousand jobs will be created, recycling doubled to 80 percent and over $100 million each year earned by charities. Its impact on reducing bottle and can litter is certain. With an assured supply of clean material for reprocessing the domestic recycling industry will also grow.
Despite these obvious benefits, the beverage industry continues high level lobbying to stop a CDS. If New South Wales finally implements a CDS, other states are sure to follow. Queensland is already actively investigating one and is keen to harmonise with New South Wales.
The 35-year battle for a bottle deposit is in its final stages.
The author, Jeff Angel, is director, Total Environment Centre and Boomerang Alliance. This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Corporate Waste Solution.