This article looks into soil from the perspective of sustainability. Soil is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of sustainability. But, there is a chance that this vital but often overlooked and under loved matter could be influential in combating climate change.


What brought my attention to soil and its role in combatting climate change, was a section that I read in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins.

There are times when words simply jump out of the page and grab you. My reading of this section was one of those times.

“The world’s cultivated soils contain about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, whose carbon content is rising by half a percent per year. The earth’s 5 billion acres of degraded soils are particularly low in carbon and in need of carbon absorbing vegetative cover. Increasing degraded soil’s carbon content at plausible rates could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality.”

I found the entire quotation to be striking. But the penultimate sentence stood out to me for why soil could be a game changer when it comes to climate change.

I was also unaware that 2015 was the International Year of Soils. I was made aware of this by the very useful UNFAO video which I have posted below.

Soils: Our ally against climate change

The key element to focus on is soil health as this is what predicts whether the soil will act like a sink or a source of carbon emissions.

Part of me is still completely amazed by the fact that there is more organic carbon in the soil than in ground vegetation and the atmosphere combined.

What is needed is soil with high levels of organic content as these are the soils that can sequester the most carbon.

What is not needed is excessive levels of deforestation which exposes bare soil to the air, compaction through heavy industrialised agriculture and of course developments which completely cover areas of soil with concrete and structures. These activities have a negative effect on soil’s ability to act as a sink of carbon and cause soils to become a source for greenhouse gasses.

I also thought it would be instructive to look back at Drawdown, which was a book edited by Paul Hawken that looked into the 100 most effective ways to reverse global warming. This was one of the most impressive books that I came across in 2017 and you can find a link to my review below.

Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken

With regards to soil the extract on pages 70-71 which was an extract from The Hidden Half of Nature by Montgomery and Bikle was very interesting. The following quotation stood out in particular.

“By the mid to late twentieth century, chemical-based agricultural practices were causing steady losses of soil carbon, topsoil, and humus, and creating water pollution, crops that were more susceptible to pests, greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide), and oceanic dead zones.”

They paint a bleak picture which emphasises the need for change.

The section on page 200-201 on microbial farming was also very relevant to soil and sustainability. I was amazed to find out that “in one gram of soil there can be up to 10 billion denizens, and between 50,000 and 83,000 different species of bacteria and fungi.

On the more technical side I also found the following quotation interesting.

“A healthy soil biome is rich in carbon because soil microbes feed on sugar-rich exudates from the roots of plants; in turn, the bacteria dissolve the rock and minerals and make those nutrients available to plants.”

I am constantly amazed by the processes of the natural world and how it functions.

The section in Drawdown which was most relevant to soil and sustainability was the section on regenerative agriculture. Incredibly, this came in as their 11th most powerful solution for combatting climate change. This section contained the following powerful insight.

“The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Feeding the soil reduces carbon in the atmosphere. Soil erosion and water depletion cost $37 billion in the United States annually and $400 billion globally. Ninety-six percent of that comes from food production.”

What you need to know

This article looked into soil from the perspective of sustainability.

We looked into a quote from Natural Capitalism which showed that soils are a massive store of carbon. It also showed that if managed properly, the soils could become an even larger store of atmospheric carbon and a significant bulwark against climate change.

We also looked into a very instructive video by the UNFAO. This showed both how and why the soil can act as a source or a sink for carbon emissions.

Lastly, we looked at Drawdown for information on the role of soil in reversing climate change. This confirmed that soil has a vital role to play.

Overall, we have to hope that soil is not overlooked in favour of other higher tech and more glamorous solutions to climate change. We also have to hope that many of the impacts that accelerate soil’s transition from a sink to a source of carbon emissions are controlled.

What is clear, is that soil has a fundamental role to play in sustainability.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of soil’s role in sustainability?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


This article looks into economic growth. It looks into GDP, the main measure of economic progress and the assumptions that underpin this indicator.


Gross domestic product or as it is most commonly referred to GDP, measures the size of a country’s economy over a period of time.

The relevant national statistics authority collects data from thousands of companies. This is used as the basis for the GDP calculations.

The most frequently used method for calculating GDP is to base it on the total amount of spending in the country.

The GDP is then calculated by taking household spending, adding investment, adding government spending and then adding net exports.

As we can see, GDP is an accurate way to measure the health of an economy, but sustainability requires that we think about society and the environment as well. As it is currently calculated, GDP is unable to provide information on these important areas.

The way GDP is calculated includes all expenditures, regardless of whether society or the environment benefit from these transactions.

GDP therefore includes many things which most people would consider to be bad for society or which do not improve the general welfare of a country. It includes money spent to clean up after environmental disasters, money spent on lawyers during divorces, money spent on unnecessary military programs and on prisons. Overall, GDP includes many things, some of which detract from the general welfare of a society.

What is remarkable is how such an indicator, barring a few exceptions such as Bhutan has become the dominant marker of progress and the data point which all countries aspire to increase.

What is clear, is that GDP is simply a gross measure of activity within an economy. It does not make any distinction between spending which is desirable and that which is undesirable. It makes no distinction between spending which places a burden on a country and spending which benefits a country.

Another huge blind spot of GDP is that it is based solely on monetary transactions. Time spent caring for an elderly or disabled relative would not count towards GDP, even though it brings many benefits to that country. Time spent volunteering or helping a neighbour would not count towards GDP even though it helps to improve that society.

GDP then is a highly deceptive measure of national progress. It includes things which are bad and fails to include things which are good. What is more, with the way it is currently calculated and celebrated, it is entirely possible for an increase in things which are bad for a country to be portrayed as a gain.

There are other measures of national progress which diverge widely from GDP’s focus on economics. But perhaps a good start would simply be a more accurate version of GDP.

A more accurate version of GDP would subtract spending on things that harm society and the environment from the GDP figure to arrive at an improved picture. This would leave a more accurate indicator of whether the country is heading in the right direction or not.

What you need to know

This article looked into economic growth. It looked into GDP, which is the main measure of economic progress and the assumptions that underpin this indicator.

We looked into how GDP is calculated by national statistics authorities. We looked into how GDP is a gross figure and so includes undesirable spending which may be harmful to society and the environment.

I know that my prognosis and the prognosis of others is that the undesirable spending should be subtracted to arrive at the net positive figure. That would be a more reliable indicator. It would be interesting to see what the counter arguments to this proposal would be.

Taking into account everything that we have looked at in this short article, what is clear to me, is that there just isn’t the level of debate or criticism necessary in order to move to a more sensible indicator of national progress.

It seems that GDP has assumed an almost mythical status as the indicator of choice for national progress. More needs to be done to call out what is wrong with this indicator and to propose workable indicators that can guide decision makers in business and in government.

Even the staunchest defenders of GDP would have to admit that the indicator does not provide information on social or environmental progress in a country. It stands to reason therefore that people are being deceived by their GDP figures. They are being told that a rising number is always good and that a falling number is always bad. As with all indicators, it is important to look at the assumptions that underpin it and how that figure was calculated.

I believe that this is an issue which is highly relevant to sustainability. When you have most of the countries in the world obsessively focussed on an indicator which deviates so far from reality. That creates a system with a slow drift towards unsustainability when we need the exact opposite to be happening.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of GDP as an indicator and do you have a better way forward?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


This article looks into the benefits of buying recycled products. Recycling is an activity that is synonymous with sustainability. Many people think it is simply about doing the right thing, but there is more to it than that. Buying recycled products allows you to play a part in building a better world socially, economically and environmentally.


Business & Marketing Benefits

There are business and marketing benefits to be gained from buying recycled inputs when compared to their virgin counterparts.

If you are a company and you make products you need to meet the market’s expectations and deliver what consumers want.

There is a fantastic study by WRAP that captured my imagination and I will use it to demonstrate this point.

The title of the study is Recycled plastic packaging – the consumer’s view and I highly recommend that you seek out the original paper as it contains some powerful insights.

In answer to the question Should packaging contain recycled plastic? The results were very impressive with 86% of consumers feeling that it would be good if packaging contained recycled plastic. As you can see from the chart below, there is clearly an appetite for products that that come in packaging that contains recycled plastic.

WRAP Study on recycling

Companies spend a great deal of time trying to create and shape their brand. This is an area where the injection of sustainability can help.

In the WRAP study 74% of respondents felt that the reputation of a retailer or manufacturer would be enhanced if its products’ packaging were made from recycled plastic. As you can see from the chart below, this is an important finding and an opportunity that businesses shouldn’t be missing out on.

WRAP brand study on recycling

Companies reputations in the marketplace matter enormously. Having people think positively about your business and your products is an important step to winning new customers and retaining old ones.

When asked, 78% of respondents said they would feel more positive about a product or manufacturer whose packs were made of recycled plastic. This finding is important and should encourage more suppliers to look at recycled packaging.

As the chart below shows, using recycled packaging is an effective way to create a feel-good factor about your company and products in the marketplace.

WRAP positive affirmations study

Overall, all three charts demonstrate why smart businesses would try to look for ways of integrating recycled materials into their operations. When you find a situation where business and environmental interests come into alignment, that is an opportunity that you need to take advantage of.

Support Innovation

By investing in recycled products or in businesses that make use of recycled products you are helping to support innovation. This also sends a signal to the marketplace that they should invest more in these areas in the future, creating a virtuous cycle of sustainable growth.

Investing in recycled products means that more competition will come into this space. This new interest and competition will hopefully lead to innovations in design to make more packaging recyclable.

Extra demand for products that are made with recycled and recyclable components and packaging has further benefits. It will help to increase interest in this sector and hopefully lead to technical innovations that lower costs for recyclers and make the whole sector an attractive space for investors.

Overall, by focussing your procurement efforts, whether as a business or as a consumer on products that make use of recycled materials and are themselves recyclable, you can help to support this industry and support innovation to help drive progress forward.

Environmental Benefits

There are significant environmental benefits to buying recycled products. Recycled products tend to be less energy intensive and often have a lower environmental impact their virgin counterparts.

Buy buying recycled products, this avoids the need for oil to be drilled, ores to be mined forests to be logged and glass to be smelted.

With regards to paper, buying recycled uses 90% less water and 50% less energy than making it from raw materials.

This is my personal favourite statistic and is why it is important to emphasise that every can counts. Recycling one aluminium drinks can saves up to 95% of the energy needed to make it from scratch.

What is more, recycling 1 tin can saves enough energy to power a television for 3 hours. Whilst recycling 1 glass bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes. Whereas recycling 1 plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for 3 hours. These statistics make clear that there are many environmental benefits that come about because of the recycling process.

Overall, it is important to be aware of the disparity in environmental performance between products that use virgin materials and products that make use of recycled materials.

What you need to know

This article looked into the benefits of buying recycled products.

For business owners and managers, there are a lot of business benefits to making products with recycled materials.

For people interested in progress and innovation, buying products made of recycled materials allows you to support an industry and to help make it more significant.

Lastly, there are many environmental benefits that come about when you buy products made of recycled materials.

It is important to be aware of and act upon these factors when you are buying things as a consumer or as a business.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think are the benefits of buying recycled products?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


This article looks into China’s recent waste import restrictions. What is the impact of these sweeping changes and what does it tell us about recycling in Europe and North America?


For more than 30 years, China has been the world’s largest importer of waste and recyclable materials. Its enormous size and booming economy which was hungry for cheap inputs made it the ideal magnet for recycled materials from developed countries. Furthermore, reverse logistics whereby ships sailing back to China could benefit from reduced shipping costs and an army of cheap labour willing to do dirty and dangerous work solidified China’s position as the major final destination for recycled commodities.

Both sides of this arrangement benefited from comparative advantage. Advanced economies specialise in the collection of materials and have a lot of mixed packaging left over from consumption. Whilst China could specialise in the sorting and remanufacturing of materials into products which would be later consumed internally or exported overseas. This is big business; in 2016 China imported 45 million tonnes of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic with a value over $18 billion.


Whilst often described as a ban, the process which was initiated in July 2017 and which came into force in January 2018 was really more of a quality control measure. It is true that 24 types of recyclable and solid wastes will be banned. This includes unsorted paper and plastics. But the new rules do not ban the import of plastic and paper outright. The Chinese government is however lowering the minimum contamination level from 1.5% to 0.5%. This is a tough but not impossible target.

Contamination is a term that will probably not be familiar to the general public, but is a common bugbear of those working in waste management and cleaning services. It is a broad term and many items can be considered contaminants. Contamination happens when non-recyclable items are mixed in with recyclables. When this happens a great deal of good quality materials can be spoiled. Some offenders are worse than others, with food, liquids and nappies being particularly problematic.

Looking at the China import restrictions, they have a point. They are paying for recyclable inputs, but they were only getting 98.5% of what they were paying for. These heavily contaminated materials, if imported to China are worthless and will have to be disposed of by incineration or landfill in their own domestic waste management facilities. These cases of rotting meat and soiled nappies as was recently the case in Brazil have happened on too many occasions, and China has had no other option but to take evasive action.

So whilst there has been a lot of finger pointing at China for the speed at which they have enacted these changes, perhaps the root cause of the problem lays a little closer to home. Local governments and businesses have to find a way to make recycling clearer and to reduce contamination levels. This would mean that intermediate sorting stations and materials recovery facilities (MRF’s) will have a cleaner feedstock with which to process and if necessary export.

The culture of recycling in developed countries has to change. Perhaps this latest restriction could be the wakeup call that was long overdue and sorely needed. For too long an out of sight out of mind mentality has pervaded. People treat resources wastefully and behave as if their actions have no consequences. This, as we can see, is not the case at all. I fully expect to see further measures enacted by local governments and waste carriers who will have to bear the brunt of these changes.

Perhaps it is also a wakeup call to process and remanufacture more of these materials in our own countries. Whilst it was no doubt convenient to export our problems to China, this window is closing and new options will have to be investigated. Labour costs are dramatically higher in developed countries, but this could be overcome with better technology and labour saving devices.

Nothing stays the same forever and things do change. No one country will be able to import waste on the same scale as China. The most likely destinations are other Asian economies like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. But still the onus is on developed economies to take ownership and control of this situation before serious backlogs begin to build up.

What you need to know

This article looked into China’s recent waste import restrictions. The impact is that as of January 2018 24 types of recyclable and solid wastes are now banned. Furthermore, new quality control restrictions apply to the import of paper and plastics, with the minimum contamination level reduced from from 1.5% to 0.5%. This will impact on businesses, local authorities and waste carriers who will have to meet these new standards should they wish to export materials to China.

What this tells us about recycling in Europe and North America is that China has been bailing out our recycling industries for 30 years and that era has come to an end. For a long time it made sense to export the packaging back to China, whose export industries thrived on low cost inputs. But the contamination issue has clearly become problematic and has been placing a large environmental and social burden on the country.

The future will no doubt involve some exports to a range of developing countries that will use these as inputs for their own development. But clearly more work is needed to process these materials domestically in developed economies.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think of China’s waste import restrictions and what needs to be done to solve this issue before it becomes a problem?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby




This article looks into whether we are being ambitious enough with regards to sustainability. Are we setting the right targets, are we flying high enough? This will be looked at through the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.

Icarus best

Icarus was the son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings made of feathers and wax. Daedalus cautioned Icarus that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. Icarus ignored this warning, the feathers came loose and he plunged to his death in the sea. The myth is taught to children to warn them of the dangers of flying too high.

But, in addition to telling Icarus not to fly too high, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too low. Flying too close to the sea would mean that the salty water and updraughts would ruin his wings.

Over time the myth has been altered. All of the focus is placed on the warning of flying too high and little emphasis is placed on the dangers of flying too low.

The question is, for sustainability as a movement, are we settling for too little, are we flying high enough?

It is now that I would like to take the time to pivot to the substantive point that I aim to make with this article. This regards the setting of science based targets.

What is a Science based target?

Targets that companies adopt to to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are considered to be science based if they are set in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increases below 2°C compared to preindustrial temperatures.

By setting science based targets businesses stand to gain from a number of advantages. These include increased innovation, pre-empting future policies and regulations, improving competitiveness and improved investor relations.

It is promising that 336 companies have signed up to this initiative thus far. Many of these are major transnational corporations with footprints larger than some countries.

For more information please visit the Science Based Targets Initiative website.

What is the problem?

In corporate sustainability, you have three different types of businesses. Sustainability leaders, sustainability averages and sustainability laggards.

The issue I see, is that science based targets are currently the preserve of sustainability leaders. The real question is, why is this not more mainstream and why are these decisions only being taken now?

Sustainability isn’t a result, it is a journey. But are the targets we are setting ambitious enough, are they meaningful? Is is not possible that we have been flying too low?

The truth is, is that without a majority of businesses having an average, or above average position on sustainability, there can be no real transition towards sustainable development. But despite efforts by governments greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase.

The real question is, should companies who adopt a science based approach be lauded as sustainability leaders, or should companies who fail to adopt a science based approach be derided as sustainability laggards?

The science based method guides the way forward, but I think it should be seen as the safe middle, for sustainability averages as opposed to a mark of outstanding leadership.

Myths are powerful. They can change the way we think, the way we act and the way we behave. They can change our ambitious and our dreams for the future. I think we can learn a lot from the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.

We can learn a lot from going back to the original intention of the myth. This was a warning against flying too high and flying too low. They both carry danger.

We need to honour the opportunities which sustainability presents and meet the threats which an unstable climate presents with bold targets and bold actions. We need to avoid selling ourselves too short, by rewarding what is best practice as something that is remarkable. Are we flying high enough?

We have the technology to make sustainability happen. But are businesses really committed?

Too many are resting in their comfort zone. They are flying too low.

We can only hope that the science based targets movement makes a swift transition from niche to mainstream. I think this could happen in a relatively short period of time.

What you need to know

This article looks into whether sustainability has the right ambitions through the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.

We looked at how over time the myth had been edited so as to place less emphasis on the dangers of flying too low.

We pivoted towards an analysis of science based targets, what they are and how they can help businesses.

We then moved on to a discussion of whether science based targets should be the preserve of sustainability leaders or whether companies who do not adopt this approach should be seen as sustainability laggards.

It is my belief that science based targets need to become the new mainstream of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. I believe sustainability leaders should have to do much more remarkable things to stand out from the crowd.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think of science based targets and how high will you fly?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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Inspiration for this book was drawn from the simply phenomenal book The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. If you haven’t already, buy this book now.



This article looks into what a sustainable corporation is. What can we distil from the worlds of sustainability and business? What is the DNA of a sustainable corporation?


These issues will of course vary. Different businesses operating in different industries or vertical markets will need to prioritise according to their specific needs.

But I would say that it is necessary to perform strongly in all of the following areas to be considered to be a sustainable corporation.

There are two extremely powerful numbers in sustainability, 100 & 0. I remember reading John Elkington’s book The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier in November 2016. John delivers his own considered and powerful insights throughout the book. This article then is my own small homage to the greatest sustainability writer of all time.

1.     Zero faults

A sustainable corporation needs to be a high quality corporation. There are some consumers who are willing to pay for an inferior product with strong social and environmental credentials but they are few in number. Thankfully, sustainability can increasingly be seen as a proxy for good management and more and more organisations are making it a strategic priority.

When people opt for sustainable products or services, they need to be comparable on price and quality with other less sustainable options. This is imperative. If you can make them with higher quality properties, then this is ideal. Many early sustainable options such as recycled paper that was of low quality and that would jam printers were not up to the job. Thankfully the performance of sustainable options is improving all the time.

A company that I have written about before and that I will mention again because of their commitment to total quality management is General Electric. They were one of the most enthusiastic adopters of a zero faults approach. Over time they embedded the ethos into the workforce and into the products they create. This has dovetailed nicely with their more recent growth strategy Ecomagination. General Electric is an industry leader, doing great things on sustainability and their focus on zero faults has played a key part in their success.

A zero faults approach is key to becoming a sustainable corporation.

2.   Zero waste

Waste is a bad thing; it is a word with negative connotations which is impossible to spin in a positive direction. If you have created waste, you have failed and you must readdress your processes.

The waste hierarchy shows the way forward. It should be implemented


Anyone can order their waste to be collected and sent to a landfill or to an energy from waste plant. That takes no skill or courage. It is bad for the environment and it is wasteful.

Becoming zero waste requires commitment, farsightedness and smart processes. These can involve self-loading single material collections where you can receive a payment for your recyclable materials.

There may be opportunities to re-use materials in some fashion. Again, this requires networking and some degree of effort to match people who are looking for materials that are surplus to your requirements. A great charity that I have been impressed by recently is the Watford Recycling Arts Project (WRAP). They specialise in the recycling and repurposing of ethically sourced commercial waste for creative enterprise. They have a really interesting subscription based business model and they do an incredible job at diverting waste from landfill and incinerators. You can find a link to their website below.

Watford Recycling Arts Project (WRAP) Website


Higher up the waste hierarchy is the holy grail of waste management, prevention. This strategy offers big savings but it’s often the hardest to do. Preventing waste from being generated is almost always the most sustainable option.

Becoming a zero waste business is a crucial element of being considered as a sustainable corporation.

3.   Zero pollution

Zero pollution is a goal, which like zero waste is challenging to achieve. But the archetypal sustainable corporation must have it as part of their mission statement.

A great company in this regard is Patagonia, who have the following inspiring mission statement.

“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”

Again, becoming zero pollution is a lengthy process that requires commitment and smart processes. Some things can be done more easily though, such as procuring renewable energy, having an all-electric fleet and prioritising train travel and video teleconferencing above business air travel.  These quick wins should be targeted early before other more challenging pollution sources are eliminated.

Sustainable corporations have a desire to take less from the earth socially and environmentally and as such they must push to becoming zero pollution businesses.

4.   Zero unethical actions

On paper, this may look like the easiest to achieve, but it is still a tall order. What does your company represent? What do people think about when your company’s name is mentioned? Do they think of a brand that is providing solutions to the world’s problems or do they think of a brand that is adding to the world’s problems.

A key way to demonstrate ethical actions and behaviours is through a commitment to being net positive. Being less bad is not inspirational. Aiming to be net positive can act as a catalyst for sustainable actions and innovations. It’s about giving back more than you take out. In this regard, the Net Positive Project has done much to raise the profile of businesses who aim to behave in the most ethical fashion possible.

Sustainable corporations must aim for zero unethical actions.

What you need to know

This article looked into what a sustainable corporation is. We looked into what the key factors are that make up the DNA of a sustainable corporation. These are:

1.     Zero faults

2.    Zero waste

3.    Zero pollution

4.    Zero unethical actions

Although it is a difficult path to being considered to be a sustainable corporation, it is ultimately worth it.

We looked at examples of companies that have reaped organisational and brand benefits from their commitment to sustainability.

A sustainable future will have to be made up of an economy of sustainable corporations, we need more of them. The key ingredient that cuts through all four of the factors is leadership. We need more bold leaders.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think a sustainable corporation is?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


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.

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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.