February 23, 2008
Return to sender, or many unhappy returns?
A furious debate between the beverage industry and environmental groups on container deposit schemes appears to be coming to a head, Nick Galvin reports.
On the surface, at least, it appears to be a commonsense, and apparently popular, way to raise recycling rates and reduce litter; put a returnable deposit on each of the billions of drinks bottles and cans Australians buy each year.
The idea is far from new; taking back the "empties" for a refund would be familiar to anyone growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
A recent internet discussion on ABC Online drew comments that, with only a couple of exceptions, strongly favoured the introduction of a national scheme.
This comment by "Ian W" was typical: "As a kid in England, the deposit on drink bottles was a valuable supplement to pocket money. You never saw an empty bottle lying around," he wrote.
"Matt" chimed in: "Going back 40 years ago, there was a 6d [sixpence] deposit on most bottles … there were few bottles left lying around because every kid I knew, including myself, nicely supplemented our pocket money by 'recycling' these bottles. Now we have cans and PET bottles which can be recycled as well. Bring it on."
However, bottlers and manufacturers such as Coca-Cola Amatil and Lion Nathan have long harboured a deep ideological objection to container deposits.
It's a potent mixture, made up of a natural aversion to regulation, plus fears they will be stuck with the costs of implementing a scheme. For years, various organisations representing bottlers and manufacturers have conducted a highly effective and controversial campaign to undermine container deposit systems wherever they have been proposed.
However, a beleaguered beverage industry is now having to fight an increasingly shrill campaign on several fronts. In Western Australia, a report commissioned by the Department of Environment and Conservation came down firmly in favour of container deposit legislation and it looks likely the state will introduce its own scheme.
South Australia, the only state that has a scheme, has announced the deposit on bottles and cans will be doubled to 10 cents.
To add to the industry's woes, the National Packaging Covenant, a voluntary deal between industry and governments that sets targets for recycling but in effect rules out the introduction of deposit schemes in its lifetime, is due for mid-term review by the end of this year.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the drinks industry is this week's announcement by the Family First senator Steve Fielding that he is working on legislation for a uniform national deposit scheme that he hopes to introduce into Parliament next month. "A national container deposit recycling scheme would save 300,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year," Fielding said.
"South Australia has proven container deposit schemes work, as it recycles 85 per cent of drink containers, while other states are bogged down in litter, averaging only 38 per cent. We are appealing to commonsense here and the figures speak for themselves; it's hard to argue against it."
Container deposits were widespread in Australia until the early 1980s, when they fell out of favour. Depending on whom you listen to, this shift to "single-trip" containers was due to tighter health regulations and consumer demand, or simple cost-saving by industry.
Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre and spokesman for the Boomerang Alliance, a coalition of green groups and others formed to lobby for container deposit legislation, is in no doubt about the motive.
"They moved the rhetoric to say litter was the consumer's fault, not their decision to introduce one-way containers and destroy the previous returnable bottle system," he said. "There wasn't any campaign from the public to say 'get rid of the returnable bottle'. It was an industry decision."
South Australia has had a continuous mandatory deposit scheme since 1975, with broad bipartisan and popular support. Around the same time South Australia went down the deposit route, the successful "Do the right thing" campaign was launched in NSW, with heavy backing by the beverage industry. It has since been rebadged as "Don't waste Australia" but continues to embody the industry's standpoint that litter is the consumer's responsibility.
Opponents of deposit schemes argue that they will make ratepayer-funded kerbside recycling unviable because high-value items such as glass and aluminium are removed from the collections, leaving behind only bulky low-value material.
Don Chambers, chairman of the Keep Australia Beautiful National Association and a board member of Keep Australia Beautiful Victoria, opposes the introduction of container deposit legislation in his home state. "If we took out the aluminium and PET bottles and the glass from that [kerbside] stream, the contracts that have been entered into are going to be not as valuable," he said.
"There will be a higher cost of recycling in Victoria. CDL [container deposit legislation] sounds great and it's very plausible, but if people were aware of the additional costs then it would not be as plausible."
Chambers also argues that container deposits do little to persuade people not to litter. "What I object to is that we are not working on changing behaviour. A CDL system does not change behaviour, as such."
Dick Wells, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which counts most of the big beverage companies among its members, rejected claims the industry was protecting its own interests at the expense of the environment.
"Of course industry wants to do things that are sensible from its own business point of view, but what we are looking at here is a coincidence between the self-interest of business and that of the community," he said.
Wells has previously claimed drinkers would be slugged with an extra $5 on a carton of beer if a 5 cents deposit was put on each bottle, an assertion dismissed by critics as scaremongering.
Barely 24 hours after Fielding revealed his plans for national legislation, Wells issued a statement claiming it would cost "working families" $400 million a year. "People don't understand it," he said. "It is like green energy. Ask consumers whether they like green energy, they'll tell you they love green energy, but are they prepared to pay for it? They aren't."
Green groups point to overseas evidence that kerbside systems can coexist with deposit legislation; there is no reason for costs to be passed on to the consumer, and it produces recyclables with very low contamination rates.
Proponents also point to several studies in recent years that came down in favour of deposits. These include a 2002 review commissioned by the then NSW environment minister, Bob Debus, from the Institute for Sustainable Futures. It says "the potential benefits of introducing CDL in NSW were found to significantly exceed the costs".
Phil Koperberg, who resigned yesterday as NSW environment minister, was unconvinced that NSW should follow South Australia's lead, preferring to put his faith in the industry-sponsored National Packaging Covenant.
"Container deposit legislation is something that needs to be considered on a national level," he said this week, days before leaving the job due to ill health. "If we were to now launch our own deposit scheme in NSW, we run the risk of breaching an agreement between the Commonwealth, state and New Zealand governments that specifies that goods must be traded without any extra restrictions imposed by any individual state. South Australia's scheme predates that agreement and has a permanent exemption."
Koperberg's cautious approach flies in the face of the Local Government and Shires Associations of NSW, which is firmly in favour of deposits, and contrasts markedly with the robust debate raging in Western Australia.
Beverageindustrybastards.com - a website backed by environmental groups with the stated intent to "tell the truth about, expose and embarrass the irresponsible corporate profiteers of the beverage and container industry" - is typical of the heat the issue generates on both sides.
"The fanatics over there are saying, 'Bugger the National Packaging Covenant. We're West Australians and we should be able to do what we want to do'," Chambers says.
#Angel, in contrast, views the developments in Western Australia with some satisfaction. He is careful not to sound overconfident but he believes we now have the best chance yet of a national system being introduced.
"The battle is on. Things have loosened up a lot and at least there is a proper debate happening now. We are now prepared for year-long trench warfare."