Deposit Return Systems – the End of our Reliance on Raw Materials

To create a climate-neutral and circular economy, society needs to reduce its dependency on raw materials drastically. Virgin plastics, whether made from plant-based sources or fossil fuel feedstocks require a highly energy-intensive production process. At the current and projected growth rates, plastic production alone could generate 53.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Overall consumption must be reduced to protect the earth’s precious resources. Still, a dilemma of enormous proportion remains – how can we reuse the materials that are already in circulation? Only 15 percent of plastic is currently recycled — and this figure varies significantly by type. What’s more, the plastic recycled today is often downcycled, which is an unnecessary degradation of valuable resources. Waste-to-energy incineration has often been proclaimed as an effective net-cost solution that makes the waste problem out of sight. The hidden price of such solutions, however, come with health implications and significant greenhouse gas emissions.

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Consumer brands play a vital role in designing a sustainable future and reducing the amount of single-use packaging. When products and packaging are designed for recycling, it diverts waste from going to landfill, incineration and litter in the environment. Sustainable design has recently resulted in a tidal wave of new materials entering waste streams, leaving consumers feeling confused about what is actually recyclable.

Some leading consumer brands are using their influence to educate consumers and work with the industry to boost recycling rates and advocate for well-designed deposit return schemes (DRS). Innocent, one of Europe’s largest smoothie and juice brands, recently launched a ‘Pfand für Alle’ (translated: deposit for all) campaign to petition its 100% recyclable containers be included in Germany’s deposit return scheme. The company also communicates market by market, how and where consumers can recycle their beverage containers.

When products and packaging are designed for circularity, it enhances the viability of recycling systems. When combined with policies that require these containers to have a deposit, consumers are given a financial incentive to return packaging for recycling. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the resource revolution, but a recent rise in deposit policies are proving to boost the collection and recycling rates of plastic.

TOMRA Key Design Elements DRS


The framework for modern deposit return systems is a finely-tuned balance of various factors which vary by country, states and regions. The basic principle is to collect a wide range of materials that can be sorted, processed, recycled and re-entered into the economy for multiple cycles. The more goods that can be collected, the higher the return on investment. Giving a financial value to products designed for recycling indicates it has a value to society, allowing society to see it as a resource as opposed to trash.

Modern DRSs are capable of routinely achieving an upwards of 90% return rate for recycling, which is achieved primarily by setting a meaningful deposit value and a convenient redemption system for consumers. Return-to-retail models prove to have a significantly lower carbon footprint than alternative concepts like return-to-depot. Consumers simply return empty containers while shopping for new goods, and retails participating in the DRS receive compensation or handling fee.

Deposit return schemes are already collecting beverage containers in more than 60 markets worldwide with outstanding results. And perhaps shortly, DRSs will help prioritize clean-loop strategies for other forms of packaging moving circularity beyond the beverage sector.