Better recycling, more refill systems and the building blocks of a circular economy

A beverage Container Return Scheme (CRS) is about reusing and recycling more drinks bottles, cans and cartons, and making sure that they don’t end up as litter in the wrong places – like gutters, streams, beaches and parks.

But how does a CRS work?

It’s quite simple, really – all drinks carry a deposit (20 cents is good!) that you pay when you buy a drink. You get this money back when you return the empty container to an official return location. 

The deposit is the secret sauce that gives everyone a reason to return their empties to the right place, rather than putting them in the rubbish. It also gives empty bottles and cans a value – that means that if you’re doing a good thing and picking up littered bottles and cans, you can cash those in for the deposit too, even if you weren’t the person who bought the drink. 

It just makes cents! That’s why countries with a CRS have high recycling rates and low rates of beverage containers polluting the environment.

A Hybrid Return System

Container return schemes look different in every state/country. In NZ we are championing a hybrid system – but what does that mean?

Some states use a ‘return to retail’ model where reverse vending machines (RVMs) in supermarkets take your empty containers and give you your deposit (in cash or supermarket vouchers). Other countries use a ‘depot’ model, where community groups and entrepreneurs set up depots around town where you can drop off beverage containers and receive your deposit from another human.

A hybrid return system takes the best of both worlds – RVMs at supermarkets AND a nationwide network of depots. A hybrid approach ticks multiple boxes:
✅ more convenient for consumers
✅ boosts community wellbeing and resilience
✅ brings funds and opportunities to community groups
✅ creates new green jobs
✅ creates the nationwide infrastructure we need for a low-waste future

A hybrid return system makes the most of the opportunities created by the money flows in a CRS. 

Anyone who runs a container return point (whether an RVM or a depot) gets a small amount of money for each beverage container they take (called the handling fee), which makes the whole system of collecting, recycling or reusing empty containers economic. The handling fee empowers community groups and charitable organisations to set up return points and make money. The handling fee also creates a reliable revenue stream that enables depots to expand into new recycling and reuse efforts for more products and materials.

Read more about how the hybrid system would work in Aotearoa.

A beverage CRS works best when it’s comprehensive.

A comprehensive CRS is a cool guy that invites everyone to the party (because the more the merrier!) All types of beverages are included, as well as containers of all shapes, materials, and sizes – plastic and glass bottles, aluminium cans, and drink cartons. Nobody’s left out; everyone’s in!

CRS and Refillable Beverages complementary systems to reduce waste and emissions

These days, a CRS isn’t just about increasing recycling and reducing litter. It’s also about boosting a return to reuse for beverage packaging in Aotearoa. If we design our CRS well, in the near future we could see more companies washing and reusing glass bottles for milk, beer and fizz – like in the old days. To make this a reality, we should make reusables a part of the CRS design from the get-go.

But wait, there’s more! In a CRS, beverage producers must take responsibility for all the little bottles and cans they send into the world. This can motivate producers to think outside the box, and create new, cleverer ways to get drinks to people, without the packaging. 

One example is selling more drinks ‘on tap’, which reduces waste, cost and emissions. Have you ever filled a flagon at a brewery, hydrated at a water fountain, or topped up your glass bottle of milk at a milk vending machine?

Read more about how Refillables complement CRS

A CRS is a systems-approach to reducing waste and treasuring resources – where lots of people, organisations and businesses work together to make it a success.

In a CRS, everyone has a role to play – law makers and government who set the wheels in motion, packaging manufacturers, drinks producers, the retailers who sell the drinks, the people – us! – who buy and consume the drinks, everyone who sets up container return points, and the people who recycle or wash and refill the empty containers. A well-designed CRS not only reduces waste and emissions, it can bring funds to communities and create new green jobs. This whole-of-society participation makes CRS a classic example of a ‘product stewardship’ scheme that puts the circular economy in action!