Subscriber OnlyPricewatch

Re-turn: The Deposit Return Scheme that could reshape Ireland

Pricewatch: A new scheme is about to place a monetary value on the plastic bottles and cans we drink from and then almost always discard, via recycling or otherwise. It’s going to be pretty different

Would you pick up 15 cent if you saw it lying on the footpath in front of you as you were out for a walk? Would you happily throw 60 cent in the bin at home simply because you couldn’t be bothered to do anything else with it?

We hope the answer to these questions are yes and no respectively. If they’re not – this article might not be for you.

They are questions that many of us are likely to face in the weeks and months ahead after the introduction of a new deposit and return scheme that – for the first time ever – will place a monetary value on the plastic bottles and cans we commonly drink from and then almost always discard, via recycling or otherwise.

Before we talk about the future though, we should really talk about the past.


Messaging really matters, as anyone who worked for Irish Water during the torrid days of the water charges shambles of a decade ago will readily – and wearily – testify.

When the water charges were first mooted by the Green Party’s John Gormley more than 15 years ago, environmental concerns were front and centre.

I believe Ireland is a country that likes to recycle and likes to do the right thing, and I think if we do a good enough job in explaining what this is about then I think people will buy in

—  Ciaran Foley, Re-turn

We were told the new system was in all our interests and would be fairly metered, moderately priced and lead to less waste.

We were assured that the revenue generated by water charges would be used to fix a leaky infrastructure and deliver a better and cheaper service to everyone.

It was to be a win, win, win. But it didn’t pan out that way at all. John Gormley was replaced as minister for the environment by Phil Hogan and the roll-out was immediately swamped in controversy, with fears of sky-rocketing costs, unfairly levied flat fees, absurd sums paid to consultants and a degree of political opportunism changing the narrative and fatally undermining the entire system.

It was scrapped before it got started.

By contrast, the messaging around the plastic bag levy years earlier was much better. Overnight, the nation embraced the notion of paying for single-use plastic bags as they understood they were a blight on our landscape and their removal would make Ireland a better place. And it did.

Ciaran Foley, chief executive of Ireland’s Deposit Return Scheme, operated by not-for-profit body Re-turn, is the man charged with overseeing the introduction of the new, environmentally focused system, and it is clear from the get-go he hopes it will follow the trajectory of the plastic bag levy rather than the water charges.

From the beginning of next month there will be a deposit of between 15 and 25 cent attached to many cans and plastic bottles on the shelves of Irish shops.

It will see the price of a 1.5 litre bottle of Coke jump from €3.25 to €3.50 overnight, while a 500ml bottle of Ballygowan water will climb from €1.19 to €1.34. A six-pack of the same product that costs €4 in your local Tesco today will cost €4.60 after February 1st.

In the boardroom of the Re-turn office, Pricewatch asks how Foley thinks the general public will react to this fairly hefty additional charge for the beverages of their choice.

He has his answer ready.

“It’s not an additional charge as long as you bring it back,” he says. “The only people to whom this will cost money in the long run are the people who don’t bring [the bottles or cans] back. Let’s be clear about that, let’s be fair about that.”

He says that similar deposit and return schemes have been introduced in other EU countries and the reaction has been positive, with a significant step up in the percentage of bottles and cans being recycled as a result.

“I believe Ireland is a country that likes to recycle and likes to do the right thing, and I think if we do a good enough job in explaining what this is about then I think people will buy in. It is a major behavioural change and I think it’ll take a little bit of time for people to get used to separating these products and then bringing them back to the shops.”

The system is being adopted in Ireland as a result of an EU-wide single-use plastics directive that sets a recycling target for these products of 77 per cent by 2025 and then 90 per cent by 2029.

“It has been clearly proven that the only way to achieve those sort of levels of recycling is through a deposit return scheme,” he says.

As it stands, we recycle about 60 per cent of these plastics, “which would be pretty good in fairness, but when you think about it, there’s 2 billion of these containers that go on the market every year in Ireland – just over a billion plastic bottles and 900,000-plus aluminium cans. So the difference between 60 per cent and 90 per cent is about 600 million, and that is the number of these products that are not being recycled properly. They’re ending up on the streets, in the rivers and the sea – or they’re going to incineration.”

He suggests that under the new system, these products will be separated more carefully, which will mean that “the quality of the recycling is much, much better”.

If the quality of the recycling material is about 80 per cent today it will be 98 per cent under the new scheme, he says. “That means we can recycle bottles up to seven times, and the aluminium cans can be recycled indefinitely.”

It is not just about recycling, he continues. “It’s about litter [and] it’s about cleaning up Ireland and benefitting the climate. It’s 80 per cent less carbon-intensive to recycle than to produce virgin plastic.”

He says people will get used to building the return system into their routines.

“We anticipate 99 per cent of people will return them when they’re doing the shop and they will go in, get the voucher and hand it in.”

The system has been three years in the planning. Thousands of reverse vending machines have been installed, producers have added the Re-turn logo and changed the barcoding systems, while retailers have had to set themselves up as take-back operators.

Now it is our turn.

Milk containers are not included because it is “a different type of plastic”, but also because it is a product typically used in the home and can be recycled in green bins. Food tins or cans are similarly excluded. The Deposit Return Scheme is particularly keen to target containers used by consumers on the go, often outside the home, and discarded in public bins or – even worse – on the street.

Glass is not in our scheme because we are already really good at recycling that and it is [at] well over 80 per cent – so we don’t need to do it

Another development coming down the tracks will see Ireland taking care of its own recycling needs. In times past, we shipped much of our plastic and aluminium to Asia, where it was supposedly recycled. We say supposedly because much of the material was not properly handled. In more recent times, our recyclable rubbish has had to stay within the EU, but in a few years we will be recycling it ourselves, Foley says.

A local plant needs about 15,000 tonnes of plastics each year to make it viable and the new scheme should more than meet that level – so a tendering process is coming for an indigenous plant. “Once that’s built it means producers will be getting their product, putting it on the market, it will be recycled, and the same producers will then buy that material again – it’s the circular economy and that’ll be a big win for Ireland.”

The real aim of the scheme is to target the bottles and cans that are dumped as we are out and about. “We are very good at recycling in the home,” Foley says. “You don’t tend to get people out and about drinking cartons of milk and a lot of that is already being recycled. Glass is not in our scheme because we are already really good at recycling that and it is [at] well over 80 per cent – so we don’t need to do it.”

He is optimistic that people will soon start to see benefits, “beaches will clean up, the streets will be a lot cleaner and then there are the carbon savings”.

He also points to community initiatives which might see GAA clubs or community groups proactively collecting bottles and cans to raise money.

The question is – will 15 cent or 25 cent be enough to make people behave differently? “For lots of people, I think it will,” he says.

And what happens to the money that people don’t claim back? Will it go into the pockets of retailers or producers?

The good news is, no. “We actually hold the money,” he explains.

Here’s how the process works: the producers of the drink products charge the retailers the deposits, and the producers then give those deposits to Re-turn, so the retailers end up out of pocket initially. Then the retailers charge the deposits to the consumers, so the consumers end up out of pocket. Then the consumers bring the containers back to the retailers and get their money back, so the retailers are out of pocket again, until they get the money back from Re-turn.

“I’m still sitting here holding the money,” Foley says. “But I don’t want that money. That is the last thing I want, but the money will pay for the upkeep of the scheme, and as the years go by, and we get much better, that money should dissipate.

“We’re trying to be transparent and focused on saying, if we implement this scheme successfully, these 2 billion products, or hopefully 1.8 billion of them, will be recycled, and you and me and everyone can go to wherever this recycling centre is, and watch that and say, there’s all the product that was picked up from all the stores around Ireland, and it went to one place, and it’s getting manufactured again.”

We’re a small country, but this [scheme] is big in terms of our country. If everywhere around the world was doing it, we’d be in a great place

When it is put to him that the problem of plastic is not going to be solved by recycling, but by the petro-chemical industry halting the production of virgin plastic, he nods in agreement.

“It’s not going to save the planet, but it’s certainly going to make a difference for Ireland,” he says.

He acknowledges the root cause of the problem, but he is not convinced we can put the toothpaste back in the plastic tube. “It [plastic] has a lot of benefits, obviously, from food, freshness, and transportation and everything else,” he says.

“We’re a small country, but this [scheme] is big in terms of our country. If everywhere around the world was doing it, we’d be in a great place. But I take your point, we can only influence what we can, but obviously it’s a much broader debate. I’m trying to look at it as we can make a difference. We’ve got to get to 77 per cent by 2025, and we are hoping that this year we will get to between 70 and 75 per cent. Our target is laid out year-by-year with specific targets to get from 77 to 90. That’s what success looks like.”

He points out that there is now a value being placed on all this rubbish for the first time. “Today, there’s no value. But it will be worth 15 or 25 cents to someone, whether that’s kids or people who can do with the money or whoever – and I think that’s what makes the big difference.”

The new scheme explained in 10 questions

What is happening – and when?

From the start of next month, if you buy a drink in a plastic bottle or aluminium can that features the Re-turn logo, you will pay a deposit on top of the cost of the product.

Just how much more will I have to pay?

Well, it depends on the size of the receptacle. There will be an automatic 15 cent deposit added to bottles and cans of between 150ml and 500ml, and a 25 cent deposit added to bottles and cans of between 500ml and three litres.

That’s pretty hefty – how will I get my money back?

You will simply bring back the empty, undamaged containers to one of more than 2,000 shops around the country that will be taking part in the scheme, and put them in a reverse vending machine – that’s a concept that might be unfamiliar to you now, but won’t be for long. The machine will scan the bar code and issue you with a voucher that you can then spend in the shop where you returned the bottle or can.

You say undamaged?

Yes, that’s important. You’ll have to resist the urge to crush the cans or mangle the bottles after you have finished with them to make more space in the bag you have set aside for your empties before bringing them in bulk to the shop.

Is it only shops with the fancy new machines that I can bring the bottles back to?

Smaller shops will accept returns over the counter. They will then issue a voucher by hand.

And are these vouchers transferable between stores?

No. If you drop your bottles or cans into your local Tesco, the voucher will be for Tesco. If you do the necessary in Aldi, you get an Aldi voucher.

What if a bottle I have doesn’t have this logo?

There will most likely be stock on the shop shelves in the initial phase belonging to what will soon be a past era. As you won’t have paid a deposit on those containers, you should recycle them in the normal fashion.

If I don’t get round to returning the bottles or cans, can I still put them in my recycling bin?

This is what Re-turn have to say on that score. “We would ask that consumers return their plastic bottles and cans with the Re-turn logo to local participating shops and supermarkets to redeem their deposit. The separate collection of these plastic bottles and cans [by Re-turn] guarantees a high-quality recyclate material is returned and recycled, and there is no cross contamination.”

And are all drinks containers included in the scheme?

No, only drinks in PET plastic bottles, aluminium and steel cans from 150ml to three litres are included. They will all feature the Re-turn logo. Among the items not included are all dairy drinks products in plastic containers or cartons. Steel and tin cans that contain foodstuffs and containers for cleaning supplies should continue to be disposed of in recycling bins.

What about glass?

These are not included in the scheme either.