This article looks into cup and bottle deposits from the point of view of sustainability. How do these schemes work and do they help increase recycling?

How do these schemes work?

Let’s take one example, from the Reading music festival; the text below is copied from their website.

Every bar cup and all plastic bottles that you purchase at Reading will have a returnable deposit of 10p.  Minimum of 10 items for £1, a full recycling bag of bottles is worth £5.  There is a dedicated return point in the arena (marked on the site map) where you can redeem your deposit.

The goal here is to encourage high rates of recycling. The consumer has the opportunity to receive their refund by returning their bottle or cup, or legally or illegally disposing of their goods.

In the case of non-returned bottles or cups, the merchant will realise a small profit on each occasion that this happens. Over the course of a large festival, this could amount to a significant quantity of money.

In the Unites States, recycling rates in states with bottle deposit schemes are roughly double those of states without deposit schemes.

Another nudge scheme, the plastic bag tax has had an astonishing effect, in cutting plastic bag usage by 85%.

Plastic bag use plummets in England since 5p charge

These small incentives can have a big impact. Litter is becoming a serious environmental problem and solutions like these are necessary to tackle this head on.

The economic incentive is working.

What are the benefits to sustainability?

  • Recycling rather than landfilling or incinerating important materials
  • Visual benefits of litter reduction
  • Customer engagement in the recycling process

There are no real costs; any argument that it unfairly punishes low income consumers doesn’t hold water. The deposit is small and only those who fail to return their containers loose out. The collection and recovery of the containers also forms part of a daily routine for those who are homeless and least fortunate so that they can access vital funds. There is no rational argument against such a scheme.

Watch the video below, to see how in Japan, bottle collection plays an important role in the lives of homeless people in that country.

Homeless in Japan

What to do with the money of non-returned items is a hot button issue. There are those who argue that the integrity of such a scheme rests on the merchant not benefiting when customers do not return their containers. I would have to support that statement.

Bins at reading

My experience at the Reading music festival was that firstly I did not consider their recycling facilities to be of a sufficient standard and secondly that it was not particularly easy to claim refunds. There had to be 10 cups to get a refund and the locations were few and closed early.

cup and bottle return point

When this happens, it reflects badly on the recycling process and sustainability more broadly.  People who are unaccustomed to just how important and necessary such practices are leave feeling scammed. If you are going to do a scheme like this, you have to execute it properly, anything less is a dereliction of your corporate social responsibility.

The key is you need to make returning the containers and receiving your refund as easy as possible. This cannot be emphasised strongly enough.

You have to be able to claim 1 refund back if you want to and there has to be a lot of options. Having it done by machine means that it can be available 24/7.

Netherlands Bottle return

The reverse vending machines located in almost all supermarkets in the Netherlands are a great idea to engage citizens in the recycling process. You can make taking your plastic bottles to such machines part of a routine when you go to the supermarket. Their ubiquitous nature means that you are never far away from claiming a refund.

What you need to know

This article looked into cup and bottle deposits from the point of view of sustainability.

We analysed how these schemes work. They work by levying a small charge on the purchase of each disposable cup or bottle. This deposit is then refundable when the customer returns the container via the proper channel.

We looked into how these schemes correlate with increasing recycling and sustainability. In theory, these schemes should work. Similar micro charges have resulted in exponential outcomes.

But the success of the scheme depends on how well it is executed. If there is not a lot of ways to claim the refund, they will be left on the floor or in the recycling and general waste bins, violating the purpose of the scheme.

This can be improved by an escrow system whereby money on non-refunded cups is donated to a worthy cause.

Overall, the key is to make returning the containers and receiving the refund as easy as possible.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. It’s great to hear about other people’s experiences in taking sustainability forward.

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


I also encountered another well-meaning but poorly executed cup deposit scheme this weekend at the Twickenham stadium.



As you can see from the pictures, this scheme involves a £1 deposit on each cup, which is a sturdier, re-usable Perspex variety. You were unable to receive refunds at the bars, only from the specific refund kiosks. As is evident in the second photo, the queue for refunds at the end was nothing short of legendary. Activities like this reflect poorly on recycling and sustainability. If you are going to initiate a cup deposit scheme you have to make it as easy as possible for people to redeem their refund.


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