Plastic pollution is receiving a lot of public attention: from plastic soup to plastic on the beach to plastic bottles. The European Commission and national governments have announced measures to tackle plastic pollution. Last week the Dutch Parliamentary Committee on Infrastructure and Water Management discussed the proposal to introduce a deposit return system for small plastic bottles. Dutch television news programme Nieuwsuur asked why no deposit return system for small plastic bottles has been set up, despite many good intentions.
Growing mountain of plastic
Plastic is everywhere - it is harmful and in many cases not even necessary. For years, we have tried to reduce the amount of plastic in the Netherlands but, despite our good intentions, the amount of plastic waste and its production is still growing and has increased by 68,000 tonnes since 2011. This is part of a worldwide trend: the global production of plastics has increased twentyfold since the 1960s, amounting to 322 million tonnes in 2015, and this is expected to double over the next 20 years. 95% of plastic waste originates from packaging, of which hardly 5% is recycled. New measures are aimed in particular at tackling plastic for packaging and other single-use plastic. The EU Plastics Strategy set out the priorities and with the proposal for the Single-Use Plastics Directive, the European Commission has set targets to reverse the trend of increased plastic production and waste.
Petition for a deposit fee for small plastic bottles
In 2017 Plastic Soup Surfer Merijn Tinga presented a petition signed by more than 55,000 people to the Dutch House of Representatives. The petition called upon the government to introduce a deposit return system in order to reduce litter from small plastic bottles by 90% in the next three years. The petition was adopted by Parliament and the government announced measures. In 2018, the State Secretary of Infrastructure and Water Management, Stientje van Veldhoven-van der Meer, promised to establish a deposit return system for small plastic bottles if the industry would not manage to recycle 90% of the small plastic bottles and to reduce the share of small plastic bottles in litter by 70-90% in 2020. The draft legislation, presented in February 2019, was met with some serious criticism as it only includes plastic bottles smaller than one litre for water and carbonated drinks, thereby excluding plastic bottles containing juices and dairy products, and also excluding one litre and larger bottles and aluminum cans. The State Secretary, however, has no intention of changing the proposal.
A history of voluntary agreements
In 1991, the first agreement regarding packaging was signed with the industry: the Convenant Verpakkingen 1991. This Agreement included objectives to reduce packaging and free plastic bags. Initially, the amount of packaging was reduced, but the targets were relaxed in 1997 linking them to the growth of the economy. In 2012 another voluntary agreement was concluded pertaining to pricing plastic bags in supermarkets. As a result of these agreements, some reduction targets were met but the absolute quantity of plastic packaging increased. Only in 2016, after the adoption of the EU Directive on Plastic Bags (Directive (EU) 2015/720), were free plastic bags prohibited by law which resulted in a prompt and vast reduction in plastic bags. So we can conclude that such agreements, voluntary or otherwise, have not resulted in the reduction of plastic packaging up to now. Recycling has been stimulated, but it cannot tackle the increase in the absolute figures. Despite these disappointing results, the Plastic Pact, a new voluntary agreement in line with the EU Plastics Strategy, was concluded in February 2019. Once again, targets have been set to reduce plastic packaging, this time by 20% compared to the amount in 2017 and to increase recycling (up to 70%). But, as with the previous agreement, no sanctions are in place and the agreement is not legally enforceable. After more than 30 years of voluntary agreements, should we not conclude that legislation is the only way forward?
The proposal for a deposit fee for small plastic bottles
The proposal to introduce a deposit fee for small plastic bottles, constituting in a modification of the Packaging Management Decree 2014 (Besluit beheer verpakkingen 2014), was recently published in the Bulletin of Acts and Decrees (Staatsblad). As mentioned before, critical remarks have been made concerning the categories of plastic bottles and beverages packaging that are excluded from the proposal, limiting the mandatory deposit fee to small plastic bottles for water and carbonated drinks. The collection of plastic bottles of one litre and more remains the subject of voluntary agreements with the industry, as State Secretary Van Veldhoven-van der Meer does not want to ‘change a winning team’ as became clear during the Committee meeting on the Circular Economy of 11 April 2019. Therefore, because of a lack of capacity in the existing deposit return system, it is unclear whether the voluntary intake of larger bottles will continue to exist as the increase in small bottles may fill the full capacity of the existing deposit return system. Furthermore, the Packaging Waste Fund, as organisation established by producers and importers (Afvalfonds Verpakkingen), and most supermarkets do not support any deposit return system and it remains to be seen how the system will be implemented and, in particular, how the costs will be divided.
Legislation as the solution?
Research has shown that deposit return systems providing a fee are highly effective, especially in countries where a comprehensive system has been introduced. The return fee seems to be a good incentive for citizens to actually hand in bottles. A report by CE Delft, commissioned by the State Secretary, confirms this conclusion for the Dutch situation and predicts that there will be a 70 to 90% reduction in the share of small plastic bottles in litter. Geert Bergsma, a Consultant at CE Delft, stated in Nieuwsuur that the chance of the reduction requirements being met without the introduction of a deposit return system would be very small. The reluctance for voluntarily implementing a deposit return system for small plastic bottles by producers and retailers in recent years and the failure of other policies to reduce litter by small plastic bottles, seems to make legislation the only option for reducing this type of plastic pollution. The assessment moment in 2020 will show whether the proposal will indeed be implemented. Hence, we must be aware that only tough, all-encompassing legislation might be the long-term and thus real solution, as there is a chance that the packaging industry will switch to the use of aluminum cans to circumvent the deposit fee system.
The Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic has provided Merijn Tinga, the Plastic Soup Surfer, with advice on the legislative procedure concerning the proposal for a deposit return system for small plastic bottles.