The UK government is under growing pressure to introduce a money-back return scheme for plastic bottles, in order to tackle huge volumes of waste in a country where 400 bottles are sold every second.
Opposition parties have called on ministers to introduce a deposit return scheme that experts say would drastically reduce the number of plastic bottles littering streets and seas around the UK. Similar schemes have been successfully introduced in at least a dozen countries.
The idea has the backing of global drinks company Coca-Cola and comes amid warnings that the worldwide plastics binge poses as serious a threat as climate change.
Kate Parminter, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said momentum was growing behind calls for a deposit return scheme. “Earlier this year, Coca-Cola said to the Scottish parliament they would back a well-designed deposit return scheme,” she said. “Now that industry are backing this scheme, it is high time the UK government began to throw their weight behind it.”
Last week, new figures obtained by the Guardian established that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021.
According to an unpublished parliamentary report, more than 4m plastic bottles a week could be prevented from littering streets and marine environments in Britain if authorities adopted the kind of deposit return schemes that operate in countries like Germany and Australia.
The Conservative party’s manifesto did not mention such a scheme in the run-up to last month’s general election, but a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the idea was being considered as part of a wider litter strategy launched in April.
“We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates for plastic bottles, with their collection for recycling rising from less than 13,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 330,000 tonnes in 2015,” the spokesman said. “We are considering further the practical ways in which we can deal with the worst kinds of litter, including plastic bottles.”
However, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green party, said ministers must do more.
“The government is under growing pressure to take action on the plastic bottle crisis,” she said. “With such a slender majority in the House of Commons, and with the public swinging behind the campaign against plastic waste, there is a real chance that ministers will consider introducing a bottle deposit scheme.
“For a government desperate to salvage its reputation, taking such a simple step forward isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves their self-interest too.”
In Scotland, support is growing for a deposit return scheme. Last week, the Scottish National party launched a detailed study into how such a scheme for bottles and cans would work.
Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, said: “Clearly there are a number of issues for the Scottish government to consider when it comes to deposit return schemes, which can only be addressed by carrying out work to understand the design of a potential system.”
Recycling rates for plastic bottles in Britain stand at 59%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden.
Coca-Cola in Britain and Europe has made a U-turn on deposit schemes and now supports their adoption in the UK, after pressure from environment and anti-waste campaigners. “We believe a new approach is needed,” the company said in a report to the environmental audit committee before its inquiry into plastic bottles was dropped after the dissolution of parliament.
“From our experiences in other countries, we believe a well-designed, industry-run drinks container deposit return scheme could help increase recycling and reduce littering,” Coca-Cola added.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Campaigners say plastic is polluting every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on the planet, with some of it already finding its way into the human food chain.