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November 29, 2022

Deposit-return schemes: Back to the future

Neil Goddin, part of the Artemis Positive Future team gives us an insight into a company they believe provides an old solution to a new problem: waste!

Deposit-return schemes: Back to the future

Neil Goddin, of Artemis’ Positive Future fund believes that the past points the way to a healthier future. Artemis wanted to share their view with The Big Exchange – you can see more of it here on their website. The Artemis Positive Future fund launched in 2021 and retains its gold medal rating in 2022. All information in the article is accurate as at July 2022.

A million plastic bottles are bought every minute; less than half are currently collected and recycled. If this continues, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Happily, the past points the way to a healthier future.

  • A million plastic bottles are bought every minute; less than half are currently recycled
  • Moving to a circular economy is one way to dramatically reduce emissions
  • The past shows us how we can build a less wasteful future.

It may not be a gull-wing DeLorean and it might struggle to hit 88mph, but if Hollywood decides to reboot the Back to The Future franchise, perhaps the starring vehicle this time should be a milk float…

If, like Marty McFly, you were to travel back in time to 1955, what might you see? You’d see milkmen making doorstop deliveries using electric vehicles that pre-dated the first Tesla by over 50 years. (In 1967, the UK Electric Vehicle Association claimed that Britain had more battery-electric vehicles on its roads than the rest of the world combined – the majority were milk floats). Milk came in glass bottles which, when empty, you rinsed and returned to your doorstep to be reclaimed and returned to the dairy.

You’d also find a society that had been taught to:

  • ‘Make do and mend’ by the years of austerity that followed World War II,
  • Supermarkets didn’t exist, 
  • Most people didn’t own a fridge and greengrocers sold fruit and veg in brown paper bags, 
  • Most people shopped daily, waste was limited and household dustbins were tiny by today’s standards (there was little in the way of packaging to throw into them).

Milkmen weren’t the only representatives of the circular economy you would see: rag-and-bone men were a regular sight, collecting clothes, pots and pans and, of course, bones. They would repair and sell the goods; the bones were sold to make glue and fertiliser. Deposit-return schemes were also commonplace: return an empty glass bottle to your corner shop and the shopkeeper would begrudgingly hand you back a few pence.

An old solution to a new problem

Like electric vehicles, deposit-return schemes can – after a few decades out of fashion – become a cornerstone of a new circular economy. The need is clear: one million plastic bottles are bought every minute, less than half of which are collected and recycled. In a world in which plastiglomerate could potentially form a marker of human pollution on the geologic record – and where it is estimated there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 - we need to change course. 

Rag-and-bone man: pioneer of the circular economy (Source: Wikimedia)


It isn’t just empty drinks bottles. It is estimated that 50% of the emissions responsible for climate change are embodied in the things we use and consume. If current best practices for waste management were deployed at a global scale, emissions could be reduced by 2.8 billion tonnes per year, roughly the same reduction that we saw in 2020 as a result of the lockdowns triggered by the pandemic. So we need to aim for an economy where no materials go to waste: for a circular economy.

In August 2023, Scotland will take a first step on the journey towards a circular economy, by becoming the first county in the UK to go live with a new deposit-return scheme. A 20p deposit will be levied on single-use plastic bottles. As with other schemes, the hope is that a deposit return rate of over 90% can be achieved, a rate that would compare extremely favourably with the 40% rate achieved by curb-side collections. As for the costs? In a well-established market like Norway, 80% of costs are covered by unredeemed deposits and by selling on materials returned for reuse and recycling.


Tomra: enabling the circular economy

One of Tomra’s reverse-vending machines Source: Tomra media library

Although we aren’t investing in milk float manufacturers, The Positive Future Fund does own shares in Tomra Systems, a Norwegian leader in collection, recycling and sorting. Tomra has been involved in deposit-return schemes since its creation in 1972 and is today the clear industry leader, with a 70% market share. And while Tomra collects 42 billion beverage containers every year, this only represents 3% of those sold – so it has plenty of room to grow. 

Today, Tomra helps reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by around 20 million tonnes a year (equivalent to the emissions of 4.3 million cars). By 2030, it aims to have doubled the emissions it saves, to have reduced post-harvest food loss by 50%, to have reached net-zero emissions and set science-based targets. The circular economy companies that we invest in are immensely disruptive to the established way of doing things, so their impact ‘bang per buck’ is high. 

Tomra already has active trials with retailers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, with a view to full launches across Scotland in time for the summer 2023. Hopefully the rest of the UK (and beyond) will follow Scotland’s lead in using deposit-return schemes and head back to the future.


This article has been supplied to The Big Exchange by Artemis Fund Managers.

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