There is a whole world beyond the colored containers. The system of selective waste collection (segregating them into different bins depending on the materials) is the most widespread among European countries, but it is not the only method that can minimize the ecological impact of urban waste. In fact, environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Ecologists in Action, Greenpeace, Retorna, Rezero and Surfrider Spain, among others, argue that it is not even the most effective.
These NGOs signed a manifesto in 2019 in favor of another packaging waste management model for Spain. Specifically, they request the implementation of a Deposit, Refund and Return System, focused on beverages on-the-go, which represent about 20% of the packaging we consume in our day to day life and are among the most common waste found on European beaches, according to European Commission reports.
The SDDR system has been in existence since 1984 and is currently operating in more than 40 countries, including Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania or, outside of Europe, Australia, Israel, Canada and the United States. In all these places, citizens pay an amount (as a deposit) for each packaged drink they buy. Once consumed, they only have to insert the empty container into a machine located in the store or return it to the person at the point of sale if they want to recover that kind of deposit.
Through the deposit, the consumer agrees to take charge of the waste generated by drinking, for example, bottled water. When you do, you are rewarded with money back. Thus, based on incentives, the SDDR has achieved recovery rates that reach 98% in cases such as Germany. Finland and Sweden also boast good recycling data for these packaging, with 95% and 84%, respectively. The UK is now preparing its legislation to go live in 2023, following the advice of the European Union. In its single-use plastics directive, the EU urges member states to implement these systems as one of the extended producer responsibility measures that can help them achieve European recycling targets.
By 2029, at least 90% (by weight) of the beverage bottles placed on the market must be collected – for subsequent recycling or reuse. In Spain, the draft Law on Waste and Contaminated Soils contemplates in its article 44 the possibility of applying this system in order to achieve the European goals for recycling packaging waste. The draft specifies that “the law provides that, by royal decree, a series of mandatory measures may be established for producers, relating, for example, to the design of products in such a way as to reduce their environmental impact, to the establishment of systems of deposit that guarantee the return of the deposited amounts and the return of the product for its reuse or of the waste for its treatment, to be fully or partially responsible for the management of the waste and to assume the financial responsibility of these activities, among others “.
Meanwhile, regionally, work is already under way. The autonomous community of the Balearic Islands, which has the highest rate of waste production in the State –800 kg per inhabitant per year–, was ahead of the state standard and also the community regulation.
Months before the plastics directive was approved, the Balearic Government gave the green light to its own Law on waste and contaminated soils, in which it proposes to establish the SDDR model “if in 2020 the objectives set by this have not been met law or by the most restrictive state or European regulations “. In any case, it clarifies that a pilot test of at least one year must first be carried out.
But Spain already had its own SDDR guinea pig. It was in 2013, in Cadaqués. This Catalan town of about 3,000 inhabitants was chosen – not including second residences – for its geographical characteristics. Located on a peninsula, the population is relatively isolated from other municipalities that can infer the results of the experiment. Thus, for four months the land of Dalí collected packaging waste through automatic systems – inverted vending machines – placed in two large surfaces and, manually, in eight small shops. The machines read the barcode on the container and printed a ticket with which the consumer could recover his deposit, the 10 cents that he had paid at the time of purchase of the product.
Although the system excluded glass in the test, the model now being proposed by organizations like Retorna or Rezero (both NGOs that participated in the experiment) also includes this material. “The results showed that the SDDR is technically and socially viable,” says Joan Figueras, who was mayor in Cadaqués at that time. “The average return was around 73%, but in the last days it reached 92%. The children were like crazy to get containers. From home to school they were picking them up. And the tourists immediately understood it. When the pilot finished I they stopped on the street to ask why we had not continued with the system, “he recalls.
Now, while Catalonia works on its next Waste Law, the Rezero organization is collaborating with the Barcelona City Council to install SDDR in one of the districts of the city. For the model, which is still in the design phase and on which little progress can be made, Rezero suggests reverse logistics, says Rosa García, director of this organization. This means that distributors, in the same way that they take the product to stores or supermarkets, would collect the empty containers, returned by consumers and stored by the managers of the shops, without having to attend to the materials. This is how it works, for example, the collection of cardboard packaging in establishments. And that’s the way it is done in Finland, where distributors have even modified the routes to go through storage centers or refilling containers, he says. “We look at Scandinavia, but the idea is that the model adapts to the characteristics of the territory,” he adds.
The Nordic countries were, as in almost everything with regard to environmental protection, the pioneers in introducing this system to collect packaging waste and improve their recycling rates. The first warehouse system was installed in Sweden. But the Swedish model only collects cans and bottles, so Rezero prefers to be inspired by Finland, which also handles glass bottles. It is run by Suomen Palautuspakkaus Oy (PALPA) – a non-profit entity made up halfway between the beverage industry and the Finnish retail sector – since 1996. That first year they collected 59% of the cans placed on the market , a figure that increased to 79% in the second, according to the PALPA reports. In 2009, they were at 90% return for cans, and the same number for plastic bottles.
The return of the glass is maintained from the beginning in figures above 80%, and the reusable glass bottles, which go to refill systems, have a return rate of 98%. The deposit that is paid there ranges from ten cents for small glass or plastic bottles to 40 cents (for plastic bottles of more than 1 liter) through 15 cents for each can. When consumers return their packages to the vending machines inverted or manually in stores, they return them to the distributors.
Another European example that Spanish organizations look to is that of Estonia. “Here, when you buy a bottle of water or a soft drink, the product label shows you the price and, in parallel, the deposit, which is ten cents regardless of the packaging material. It is indicated separately to clarify that the deposit is not a component of the price, which is not an extra cost, “says Rauno Raal, president of Eesti Pandipakend, the operator of the Estonian SDDR. This packaging collection model started in the Baltic country in 2005 and today its return rate is between 80% and 98% of the total number of marketed packaging. And how do they ensure that establishments return the containers and that they do not throw them into the container, mixed with other waste? Both supermarkets and small stores also assume a deposit for each packaged product they purchase.
This money can be recovered by returning the reusable containers to the filling systems of the producing companies or, if they are no longer useful, to Eesti Pandipakend, the operator, which previously would have received the deposit paid by the producing companies for each container they put into the market (and that they only recover when the containers are reusable).
In 2016, Eesti Pandipakend advised Lithuania, the last European country to incorporate the SDDR, and is now helping Spanish entities that want to build this system here. “The results come very quickly, since there is a monetary incentive for the consumer. In Lithuania it had not even been a whole year and the rate of return was already around 70%. The second year, it went up to 90%”, he highlights Raal. In Spain, he warns, perhaps times are different. “Being a much larger country, it will probably take more time and effort in preparation – both technical and legislative – but in the end it will work because the logic is the same. We believe that we are green enough when in fact our behavior as consumers is not So green. For beverage containers, the only thing that can have quick results is DRS. Colored containers are proven not to work for it, “he says.
Proponents of this model stress that the quality of the material recovered is much better with SDDR. In their jargon, it’s about upcycling and not downcycling. “Recycling in Spain is degraded recycling, because you cannot make new packaging from old ones”, affirms Miquel Roset, spokesman for Retorna, the Catalan organization that has been claiming the SDDR for ten years.
Recircula also addresses this issue: “Very little material is recovered, and what is recovered is known as under-recycling. It is used to make some types of trays that are not in contact with food,” says its president, Eusebio Martínez de la Casa. . “Making a bottle from a bottle is impossible with the current system,” he maintains.
The argument is that, even when beverage containers are properly separated in buckets, they are mixed there with other types of containers, which are often thrown away with food scraps. All this, they argue, ends up ruining the possibility of turning this waste into a valuable resource. “However, when they are introduced into the SDDR machines or returned to the merchants, they are clean and this separation favors, above all, reuse and, when they are no longer useful, recycling”, explains Ioana Popescu, project coordinator at the European Citizen and Environmental Organization for Standardization (ECOS).