Plastic has become the default material of the modern world. Whilst many plastics have their rightful place and function, most disposable, single-use plastics are an unnecessary convenience. Thanks to programmes such as the recent ‘War on Plastic’, the public is increasingly aware of the material’s environmental cost – ranging from marine litter, to issues with waste exports, to contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.
Businesses are looking to respond to this concern, but as a rule there are few unequivocally good solutions. Using biodegradable plastics instead, for example, is often put forward as the answer but the case for and against is more complicated than it might seem. There’s one straightforwardly beneficial solution: preventing waste by reducing the quantity of plastic we use. But how can this be achieved?
Let’s look at one specific example: the plastic cup. Globally, we get through an estimated 500 billion plastic cups per year. In UK pubs and venues, especially throughout the summer, single use plastic glasses are widely used to avoid risks associated with breakages, to avoid the time and cost of washing up, and to serve large numbers of customers quickly. Disposable plastic cups are the status quo, but there is an alternative. Conscientious facilities, events, and venues can dramatically reduce the number of plastic cups they use by switching to reusables, through venue- and event‑based deposit return systems (DRS).
In a DRS, customers pay an additional fee at the point of purchase which is later refunded when the product packaging is returned. Such systems have been particularly successful for increasing collection and recycling of drinks containers, with Finland achieving an average 92% return rate in its scheme, which covers PET bottles, glass bottles and metal cans.
The same concept can be applied to cups for drinks sold in bars, sports and music venues, and at festivals. A deposit is paid when a drink is purchased, and refunded when the customer returns the cup the drink was in. It generates an incentive for consumers to return their drinks vessels and allows them to be washed and reused, rather than used and disposed of. In the latter case, a single use cup’s time in service is rarely as much as an hour. By comparison, a reusable cup’s lifetime can be six months or more, at the end of which it can be recycled.
DRSs have been brought in by a number of Bristol venues, and they’re something we’d love to see adopted more widely. We’ve been in touch with some of the venues that have adopted the idea, from sports venues to Bristol bars, and are sharing their operational experiences here in the hope it can result in much wider implementation of deposit systems.
Our research suggests that a DRS is a quick win in terms of preventing plastic waste and also results in significant financial savings. Implementation is not without its challenges, but none appear especially difficult to overcome.
Getting a DRS started involves an upfront investment. Reusable cups cost around £0.50 each, making them approximately ten times more expensive than their disposable counterparts. They also need cleaning, so the venue will need a glasswasher, if not already owned. However, these investments are more than repaid through operational savings – principally from purchasing and disposing of fewer single use cups.
Venues across Bristol are now saving tens of thousands of pounds per year as a result of reusable cups, with the original investment being quickly repaid. The absolute scale of savings depends on the size of the venue, but for each of the venues we contacted, the payback period was between two and ten weeks.
The savings above consider only the capital investments required in cups and supporting infrastructure. As such, they do not include:
- Any profit made from unredeemed deposits – a customer who doesn’t return the cup doesn’t get their deposit back and so more than pays for the replacement glass; and
- savings from waste prevention – Arnolfini reported a “dramatic reduction” in waste production, which leads to waste disposal savings. The Trinity Centre reported a reduction of around eight bags of waste per night.
Hence, introducing a DRS could result in greater savings than shown. What’s more, in addition to the financial benefits, a DRS can have numerous other positive impacts for a venue and its clientele. These include:
- Reduced staff time spent picking up cups (customers do that instead!),
- Reduced litter,
- Positive marketability,
- Good customer feedback, and
- Contributing to environmental awareness-raising.
A washed up idea
While many venues and events will already have everything it takes to implement a DRS, others may face barriers. One of the convenience benefits of single use plastic cups is that there’s no requirement to wash or dry them. Some of the venues and events relying on single use cups have very high throughput, and may be concerned that renewables would bring difficulties with storage and washing capacity.
In many cases, space can be found. The Trinity Centre in Bristol was using ~6,000 cups per week before they switched to a DRS with a reusable cup. To make the switch, they purchased a glasswasher and ~2,000 reusable cups, and set space aside for cup drying and storage. Over the course of a year, we estimate that this has avoided the use of ~300,000 single use cups. The result from this venue alone is the prevention of 4-5 tonnes of plastic waste per year.
But what if you can’t install a glasswasher – for example, if you’re operating on a festival site. Several festivals, such as Shambala and Bristol’s Love Saves the Day, have found ways to resolve this by working with companies like Green Goblet and Refresh West that can provide reusable cups alongside a washing service.
Looking after the pennies
Taking and refunding deposits is another issue our venues have contended with. Those considering a scheme may be concerned by the logistics or time involved, but it appears rarely to cause issues in practice.
In the venues we’ve spoken to, deposits are taken by cash or card, and a separate store of cash (usually £1 coins) is kept for refunds. Using cash avoids bank charges for card refunds. For venues where a large flow of people may be expected at the end of the gig or sporting event, refund points can be set up at exits to redeem the deposits and take back the cups. The most popular deposit value seems to be £1, although some have used £2. The larger sum provides a greater incentive for return, whilst making the refund process a simple cash transaction is also important.
Thinking outside the cup
Whilst switching to reusable cups is a quick win and – from our analysis – a commercial no-brainer, the underlying principle is waste prevention. This is the top tier of the waste hierarchy and looks to reduce the overall quantities of waste produced before even considering recycling or various forms of disposal. DRSs are effective ways of putting that principle into practice – that’s why Eunomia implemented the world’s first conference coffee cup DRS at RWM last year.
The deposit-return model can be applied to items beyond cups: some music festivals are now discussing applying deposits to refillable wine bottles, while food outlets are beginning to encourage their clientele to bring their own re-usable containers, with and without a deposit, for the takeaway food they buy. Finally, zero waste shops are popping up as an extension of the waste prevention principle both here in Bristol and further afield.
With each small change, the power that disposable plastics have on our society dissipates. And that is essentially what it boils down to: questioning the need for anything to be disposable rather than accepting the status quo. With that in mind, keep an eye out for disposables when you’re out and about – and ask yourself, could this be replaced with something reusable and deposit-bearing?
In our view, disposables may be the default, but deposits are the future.
Featured image: Danny J. Palmer (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr.