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Learning from the world’s best deposit return systems

Sorting specialist Tomra says deposit return schemes are essential for boosting recycling rates but many fail to reach their full potential.

The conclusion is key to a new white paper from the company entitled ‘Rewarding recycling’ and it organised a webinar to discuss recycling best practices, looking specifically at plastics recycling and collection schemes.

Deposit return systems work by incentivising recycling with collection points generally installed at commercial hotspots such as retail stores. ‘It’s an extremely effective mechanism for changing consumer behaviour in a positive way,’ says Mike Noel, governmental affairs manager at Tomra. ‘The thing is, not all schemes are reaching their potential. So what makes the difference? What are some schemes doing right or wrong?

The sorting company, which has over 45 years’ experience innovating and managing deposit return systems in 40 markets, has published a detailed analysis on the topic. Norway, where Tomra’s headquarters is based, relies mostly on manual return points to handle discarded goods and scrap materials.

In fact, while only about 25% of collection points are automated they deliver more than 90% of the volume. Tomra points out that automatic collection points equipped with built-in baling solutions can make transport four times more efficient, greatly reducing costs.

Plastic beverage bottle collection rates are 47% without a deposit scheme and 94% with one – the average figure for Europe, according to a 2020 Eunomia report. In the US, the average figures are 27% without a scheme and 72% with one. ‘This could probably be boosted to 88% if it is a high performing scheme,’ Noel states.

The Eunomia data shows Germany in first position, followed by the Netherlands, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark. The states at the top of the US list are Michigan and Oregon with collections rate of around 89% and 80% respectively. Canada scores well, too, at just under 80%.

Massachusetts and Connecticut are at the bottom at around 50% – the same figure reported for Queensland in Australia. New York does a little better, managing just over 60%.

Breaking it down on a ratio of recyclables returned at collection points per consumer, Norway comes out on top. The country, with a population of 5.3 million people, has 15 000 collection points which equates to one drop-off point for every 355 consumers. Germany’s return rate is higher at 98% and it has 130 000 collection points for its population of 83 million, which is one for every 638 people.

Michigan, with 9.9 million inhabitants, has 13 500 collection points, one for every 739 people. California, which has a recycling rate of 62%, presents quite a different picture with a population of 39.5 million and only 1 219 collection points, one for every 32 411 people. ‘This is the price of inconvenience; it explains why the collection figure has been stagnant for years,’ says Tomra.

The location of a collection centre is crucial. ‘Busy urban areas will require more drop-off options compared to suburban or rural areas,’ the report says. For example, there are 0.3 collection points in Norway per square kilometre. This rate is far higher in the capital of Oslo, where there are 11 points per square kilometre.

Tomra argues that a specific app for consumers and businesses is an important tool to increase collection rates.

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