February 17th, 2012

Costa del packaging

4 minute read

by Debbie Fletcher


It’s all very well being able to model from afar the benefits that might be derived from a deposit refund system (DRS) – but it wasn’t until I arrived in Ibiza for a meeting with the Spanish recycling organisation, Retorna, that the potential success and benefits of such a producer responsibility system really sunk in.

It was there that I saw how, even on a small scale (one white van with a reverse vending machine in it, situated in Ibiza Town for a week), the little bit of a financial incentive encouraged people to return their empty drinks containers. One person we spoke to there had a big black sack of bottles and cans that he had picked up from the beaches and roads earlier that day, so I was even able to see litter reduction in action!

Retorna – on the road in Ibiza Town


Retorna is looking closely at the impacts of introducing a DRS across the whole of Spain – but will it really have a big impact on recycling, how much would it cost to operate, and would it work in the UK?

Spain gets through a lot of drinks containers. Each year, its 46 million inhabitants consume around 18 billion beverages in non-refillable containers. The majority of municipalities separately collect packaging wastes via local bring sites. These are effectively small communal bin areas – most municipalities offer different bins for plastics, cans and cartons, one for glass, and one for paper and card.

Studies looking at what ends up in each container show significant levels of contamination, and figures on material fates through the sorting facilities in Spain suggest as much as 30% of the material collected this way may be ending up in landfill or going for further sorting/residual waste treatment.[1] Further, a significant proportion of metal recycling is achieved by collecting it from the bottom ash of incinerators, rather than through source-separation. All in all, it might be argued that there’s room for improvement.


Meet the Client

Retorna is a non-profit organisation whose aim is to promote a sustainable production and consumption model, encouraging the recovery and recycling of waste. The work they commissioned from Eunomia to deliver was to help them understand the net financial impacts of the introduction of a DRS on all the key stakeholders involved in the system. In addition, Retorna commissioned two other independent studies looking at the impact of a DRS on jobs and on the environment. As clients, they have been thorough in their review and subsequent understanding our work, which has had to be pretty robust to stand up to the scrutiny.

Of course, making the producer fully financially responsible for bringing packaging onto the market has a cost – our report estimates the net additional cost to the producer as being about 0.6 euro cents per container. This factors in key elements such as the handling fees for retailers, and the costs of reverse vending machines and counting centres over their expected lifetime. The modelling undertaken also estimates that the introduction of a DRS would result in an increase of 14 percentage points in the overall recycling of all separately collected packaging materials across Spain. Further, based on previous research we did for CPRE on the potential impacts of a DRS on the UK, it seems likely that the scheme would yield a net growth in jobs, as well as a reduction in litter – and that these benefits would outweigh the financial costs of the system.


Back in the UK

If it is being taken so seriously in Spain, could a DRS work in the UK? Because our recycling rates are higher than in Spain, there is somewhat less scope for a DRS to bring about dramatic improvements here. And to a government committed to minimising the costs on business, the idea of a DRS is unlikely to be attractive.

For the case to truly stack up in Britain, a lot would depend on the value that is placed on the disamenity caused by litter. This is something where research is urgently needed – litter is something that matters to people, and there is a value to any system that helps to reduce it, but there is no accepted methodology for assessing its impact.

In the meantime, should the Spanish Government successfully introduce a DRS over the coming years, the many British tourists that flock to Spain annually will find themselves enjoying cleaner beaches and streets and may well be bringing back the good news along with their sun tan.


Debbie Fletcher


Dr Debbie Fletcher Senior Consultant


[1] Fundació per a la Prevenció dels Residus i el Consum Responsible (2011) Análisis de los Resultados de Recuperación de Residuos de Envases en 2008, July 2011.




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