Plastic bottle recycling pilot highlights scalable solution to help meet UK’s recycling challenges

Greenredeem is today calling for Defra to invest in convenient recycling solutions that create sustained behaviour change by appealing to people’s priorities, rather than focusing solely on rolling out a deposit return scheme (DRS) in the UK

In a new report, ‘Money back for our empties - the recycling solution for our plastic bottles?’, Greenredeem highlights the benefits of the scalable closed loop recycling model piloted through its year-long programme with 25 schools, and questions the effectiveness of DRS. Between January to December 2019, Greenredeem – which works with councils, brands, manufacturers and retailers to create sustained behaviour change – trialled interactive recycling kiosks alongside educational activity across 25 primary and secondary schools in Windsor and Maidenhead.

Pupils could scan and deposit plastic drinks bottles while engaging with videos, images and facts about recycling and the environment, which were displayed on each kiosk. Students were also engaged through tailored lesson plans, developed with Plastic Oceans UK, to help them understand how to responsibly consume and dispose of plastics. Every bottle deposited earned 5 pence for the school, to be spent on further educational initiatives. As bottles were scanned, this allowed analysis of the brands and types of products, helping to understand what was being recycled.

By offering educational and financial benefits and using the kiosks to create a focal point for engagement, the model improved recycling quality and capture rates, reduced littering and contributed to a circular economy – while keeping all recycled plastic in the UK.

12,000 pupils recycled nearly 160,000 plastic bottles over the 12 months – weighing a combined total of 5 tonnes – with plastic drinks containers sourced at school, from home, events, and litter picks. As part of the closed loop process, recycled bottles were collected from the kiosks each week, providing a very clean amount of PET, which was used to create new plastic bottles.

To help track the impact that a school-based incentive scheme could have on attitudes towards recycling, Greenredeem also commissioned surveys with more than 2,000 respondents, focused on parents from participating schools and members of the wider school community. The surveys showed that:

  • Awareness of the impact of plastic pollution grew from 88% to 93%
  • 75% said that being able to help a local school motivated them to recycle more
  • Respondents claiming to recycle all plastic bottles when not at home grew from 56% to 62%

Greenredeem ran the pilot to inform Defra’s plans around the potential roll-out of DRS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2023. With the Institute of Economic Affairs having previously warned that DRS are a “very expensive way of achieving very little”[1], Greenredeem wanted to explore an alternative recycling solution that could provide greater impact, while supporting kerbside recycling collections, benefiting local authorities and reducing the costs of a DRS.

Matthew Ball, Managing Director of Greenredeem, said:

“In the UK, 3 billion plastic bottles are thrown away, littered or never recycled every year. [2] There is a clear need for the Government and the industry – from manufacturer to retailer, collector to processor – to find long term solutions. But DRS alone are not the answer. We must invest in convenient solutions that create sustained behaviour change by linking recycling with education, good causes and people’s priorities.”

“The flexible model we piloted provides a readily available and scalable solution which benefits everyone involved. The kiosk is a focal point and conduit for recycling that could be rolled out in other ways across the UK – including through an app – to ensure the cost-effective capture of plastic bottles. We look forward to discussing the outcomes of this pilot with Defra as it consults on England’s future waste & recycling strategy. Although the financial reward helped to drive action, the educational initiatives ensured a deeper connection to the cause, helping these behaviours to become sustained. If Government backs this kind of long-term model, we can make a significant improvement to plastic bottle recycling in the UK.”

DRS systems involve charging consumers a small deposit for every single-use plastic, glass or metal drink container they buy, which is redeemed when the bottle or can is returned. Previous analysis from the Institute of Economic Affairs predicts that the DRS scheme will cost almost £1 billion to set up, with annual running costs of £814 million. It also suggests that the vast majority of containers intended to be collected through the DRS are already being recycled via kerbside collection.[3] In addition, under a DRS, local authorities would lose the revenue they make from kerbside collections of plastic bottles.

Jo Ruxton, Founder & Director of Plastic Oceans UK said:

“This process worked for two main reasons. Firstly, because it used targeted messaging around the need to reduce and reuse plastic delivered through award winning lesson plans, which we know is the most important way to deal with plastic items designed for single-use.  Secondly, the Greenredeem process provides a closed loop system specifically designed to make the best re-use of a high-value type of plastic that can go through the process many times without losing quality. Having this system within schools helps to educate the next generation to understand the importance of living sustainably with plastics.”

Greenredeem’s report also reinforces the major impact that could be made by encouraging people to switch to using refillable water bottles. More than 78,000 plastic water bottles (49% of the total recycled bottles) were collected through the pilot, and Greenredeem estimates that reflected nationally, 18 million of the plastic bottles consumed each day contain water.

As part of the pilot, support for a refundable tax on plastic bottles increased from 79% to 86%. For almost 3 in 4 people, a donation to a school or good cause was a motivating factor in paying a non-refundable tax on bottles.

Jane Wardle, Business Manager from Wessex Primary School, said:

“By encouraging everyone to get involved with simple and effective practices and incentives, this scheme helped to not only raise awareness of responsible recycling of plastic bottles, but also earned money for schools. We’re thrilled with the community effort that was achieved.” 

The pilot was delivered in partnership with Plastic Oceans UK and Grundon Waste Management.






Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.