Message in a bottle-scheme

Instead, however, the message we received from this bottle-scheme is that it was, at best, poorly thought-through, and haphazardly implemented

When government introduced a plastic bottle-recycling scheme last November, there was widespread consensus that it was sorely needed.

As Edward Chetcuti, CEO of Beverage Container Refund Scheme, put it at the time: “Each year Malta ends up with some 230 million drink containers but only about 20% are recycled. The beverage refund container scheme aims to have 90% of all the material that it collects recycled, in line with EU directives.”

Apart from addressing the environmental problem of plastic waste, deposit schemes are also effective ways of encouraging people to separate their waste: in a way which contributes to mandatory EU recycling targets, which Malta has so far consistently failed to reach.

But for such mechanisms to function properly, they have to be supported by the public. And unfortunately, this is where this otherwise well-intentioned scheme has clearly fallen short of expectations.

Truth be told, the initiative was dogged by scepticism from the start. Consumers questioned why the cost of bottled beverages suddenly shot up by 10c: a mark-up which – even if refundable – would still result in profits for the retailer (on the basis that many people would, for various reasons, not opt to return the bottles; and thus, never claim the refund).

To be fair, many of these problems can be put down to teething issues. Nonetheless, the Beverage Container Refund Scheme was implemented in the absence of public consultation; and it was not subject to any social impact assessment, which would have studied the impact on different social groups: including the elderly, people who do not drive, and different categories of shoppers and businesses.

An SIA would also have recommended measures aimed at alleviating the impact on these categories; whilst also exploring other possible alternatives.  (For example, giving each household a one-time grant to buy a reverse osmosis system, may well prove more effective in reducing the amount of plastic containers.)

Elsewhere, the general impression is that the current system is earmarked for people who use their cars to take their plastic beverage containers to deposit machines in supermarkets. People who do not drive, on the other hand, have to carry the plastic containers either to the nearest supermarket, or the nearest community hub.

This may not be an unsurmountable difficulty for able-bodied and younger people, but it penalises the elderly and people with mobility impairments.

The problem can only be resolved if there is a sufficient number of deposit machines installed in public areas, at a reasonable radius from different residential areas. From this perspective, it is ridiculous that major urban centres like Birkirkara currently have only two community hubs, to cater for the entire locality.

Even from a purely environmental point of view, it does not make sense to encourage more car-use, as this would offset any environmental benefits of the scheme itself. The reality is that people are expected to carry loads of beverage containers which have to be kept intact; and the most convenient way to do this is always going to be by car.

By way of contrast, kerb-side collection does not require individual car-trips to supermarkets, and in this sense is the more environmentally-friendly option. But there may be possible pitfalls with this scheme, too.

It is noteworthy that the new kerbside collection system – which is set to be introduced in January – allocates only one day (Thursday) for the collection of recyclable waste (the grey bag).  At present, this waste is collected twice a week.

Surely, this will further exacerbate storage problems especially for small households who already have to find space to store beverage containers.

Moreover, not enough consideration has been given to smaller shops.  This is because vouchers from machines installed on supermarkets can only be used in that particular outlet.  It would have made far more sense to give consumers the full freedom to spend their vouchers in any outlet of their choice.

Another sensible solution would be that of allowing small shops to compress beverage containers, after registering each return with the BCRC’s IT system.


For all this, the biggest complaint concerns the price-increase. This is perhaps inevitable, as deposit schemes are based on the carrot and stick approach: with the price increase being the stick; and the voucher, the carrot.

In this case, prices of beverage containers have been increased by 10 cents to encourage consumers to recover this amount from deposit machines.  But public trust would have been far greater, had the industry itself chosen to absorb part of the burden, in line with the polluter-pays principle.

In this way, while the consumer would still have been entitled to a 10-cent refund, prices would have increased by only (for example) 5 cents: with the rest being subsidised by the industry.

This would have addressed the perception that the industry is ‘profiteering’ from the situation. And by absorbing a small part of the price burden, the industry would also have sent the message that ‘we are all in this, together’.

Instead, however, the message we received from this bottle-scheme is that it was, at best, poorly thought-through, and haphazardly implemented.

It doesn’t mean, however, that we should throw out the entire scheme, with the plastic bottles.