Opinion: Drink Container Recycling – Who “Returns and Earns”?

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote an opinion about something that’s not entirely technology-related, so I guess it’s a good time to write something about drink container recycling, as that’s become something I do sporadically since the introduction of the “return and earn” scheme in New South Wales.

Container Deposit Schemes

In our modern society of convenience, the word “disposable” has often been taken so much for granted that it is often omitted and forgotten. However, in many instances, purchased beverages come in a variety of disposable containers – cups, cans and bottles. Unfortunately, while convenient, these are often improperly disposed of, ending up as litter in the environment.

Such containers are quite attractive for recycling as their materials (e.g. aluminium, PET) are easily recycled and can realise significant cost and energy savings in the process. This, in essence, makes the trash “valuable” but many times they are not recycled because the facilities aren’t available (single trash bin only at a public venue), they are not separated correctly or mixed in with contaminated recycling which could end up sending it to landfill.

In the early days of glass bottle distribution in the 1950s, container reuse was a necessity due to the high cost of bottles, which spawned a workforce of bottle-collectors. Later on, the idea of container deposit legislation (CDL)/container deposit scheme (CDS) came about, with the earliest examples in South Australia in 1975. This resulted in the familiar printing on bottles which promised a 5c (and later, 10c) refund in South Australia (and later changed to S.A/N.T, now “in the state and territory of purchase”. This also led to a joke in that if we were ever to visit S.A/N.T., we could carry a bag of cans with us …

In all fairness, as a person who grew up watching the introduction of recycling bins to the home and had the concept of separated waste streams impressed firmly into my brain from a young age, the idea of having such a container deposit scheme sounded like a great idea – in essence, incentivising good behaviour. It was something I could see was needed, as I was always enthusiastic about putting the rubbish “in the right bin”, the rest of the family took a lot more persuasion and financial persuasion often causes more rapid changes in behaviour than other motivating factors.

Return and Earn

New South Wales finally got its container deposit scheme on 1st December 2017, when the Return and Earn scheme commenced its rollout. This scheme, partnered with TOMRA Cleanaway aims to establish more than 500 collection points throughout the state to collect eligible beverage containers between 150mL to 3L in capacity made of PET, HDPE, glass, aluminium, steel and liquid paperboard. A refund of 10c is provided for each eligible container, provided it is returned empty, uncrushed, unbroken and with its original label attached.

Key to the system is the return points, which include reverse vending machines, over the counter return sites, automated depots and donation stations. All sites except the donation stations allow for the user to collect the 10c as either cash or electronic funds transfer (supported by the myTOMRA app and PayPal).

The Good

The good news is that New South Wales finally has a container recycling scheme. As a result, people are being incentivised to return their bottles and the system works to validate the returns and prevent recycling from being potentially contaminated. This would be a big advantage to industry and the environment.

Returning containers could be as simple as tracking down the location of your nearest return point using the myTOMRA app (or the website). Reverse vending machines are generally available all hours and are self-service.

The system is built into a couple of shipping containers, which are often “parked” in supermarket parking lots. The “business” end of the reverse vending machine looks like the image below.

A total of four recycling lanes are provided, left two for glass bottles, with the right two accepting the other types such as plastic, cans and cartons.

The machines from TOMRA are relatively easy and straightforward to use too. Users are advised to bring their bottles in a bag and a handy bag hook is provided underneath the chute as well. Users of the app can start by scanning their barcode at the reader and watching the screen as they are validated and logged in. Guest users can touch the screen and follow the prompts to donate their return or to receive a printed voucher that can be redeemed at a Woolworths, Coles or IGA.

Once logged in, it’s a matter of feeding the bottles through the chute where they are scanned and recognised before travelling far into the rear of the machine where they are stored for later collection. The screen informs the user of the refund amount with the user ending their session by selecting the pay-out option (e.g. PayPal) on the touch-screen.

Refunds through the myTOMRA app are practically immediate via PayPal and incur no fees for withdrawal to a bank account. That’s all pretty good.

Another interesting side effect? It seems that plastic bottle litter is now almost zero – you don’t see them around anymore. But instead, now the big offender seems to be disposable coffee cups … and this doesn’t do anything to solve it.

The Bad

Unfortunately, life is never as simple as the ideal, so there are a few annoyances with the system. The first is the issue of bottle insertion. New users of the system almost always put their hand into the chute, where the machine senses the hand and comes to a halt, followed by reversing the container out. The container needs to be “slid” into the chute without the hand going through the chute to operate correctly.

The second is container eligibility and rejection rate – there will be some times where eligible containers are rejected since they don’t scan correctly due to damaged barcodes, container being slightly crushed or damaged or due to alignment. This requires someone to reach their hand into the machine to remove the bottle. This also needs to happen in case the empty and relatively bouncy bottles decide to bounce off of the conveyor. As a result, on the one hand, we tell the user not to put their hand in, and yet, sometimes they do need to put their hand into the machine. At least the machine shouldn’t hurt you … Some people have discovered that if they put the same ineligible container in enough times, the machine may accept it perhaps since it didn’t read the barcode.

The third annoyance I have with the scheme is the actual overhead – I stumbled upon this FAQ from BigW which answers the question of “Why is the price increase more than 10c per container?”:

As well as the 10¢ initiative refund, an initiative admin fee has been included in the price increase. This admin fee covers the cost of operating and administering the initiative.

The image below claims the admin fee is 3.54c per container – that’s a 26% overhead!!! So not only are we paying extra when purchasing our drinks, law abiding citizens who return their containers are still losing 3.54c per container. While on the one hand, I’m a little miffed to know this, on the other, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing as it might disincentivise using disposable bottles in the first place, which is probably a better outcome.

I don’t think the administration charge really needs to be as high – it is really just another form of recycling, just that you’re not doing it at home. The damning part is that despite the introduction of the scheme, just 27% of the containers were returned (Aug 2018). As a result, The Weekend Australian claim that $400m was pocketed by companies from this, a claim that is denied by Exchange for Change. I wonder just where that money is, and where it will go?

But even if I want to be an “abiding” citizen and return my bottles, things are not as easy as it seems. While my first port of call are usually reverse vending machines as they are always-available, self-service, more often than not it seems that capacity is insufficient. While there is a cap of 500 bottles per transaction, there is always someone with multiple accounts and shopping carts full of bottles queueing at the machine! They often do not yield to others, having multiple shopping carts and bags full of bottles, often putting machines out of service with their aggressive returns.

Thinking of time value alone, at $18.93/hr of minimum wage, your time is worth 0.52583 cents per second. For a 10c bottle, if you spend more than 19 seconds to return it, assuming you could have been working for that time, you’re actually worse off than before. So lets say you’re like me, you walk up with a backpack full of 600mL drink bottles which is about 16 of them … by the time you’ve queued five minutes, you’ve lost the equivalent refund in waiting time alone. It gets worse if you are paid more than minimum wage.

Because of this, there is an incentive to put-off returning bottles until you’ve collected a significant number of them. That avoids queueing multiple times. But the situation can get even worse if you are making a special trip to return bottles, as often, they are not located in the most convenient places (more on that in the next section). If you’re on an Adult Opal card, a minimum fare band ride is $2.20 on a bus … in other words, it costs 22 bottles just to get there and back (assuming you make it within the hour on a transfer).

But this is why the over the counter is more of a unicorn than an actual “thing”. It seems like they may have enlisted various shops to “bulk up” the number of return points as a metric, with shops being sold on the idea it could drive customers through their door. Except, customers who do turn up with bottles are often given confusing and conflicting messages. I’ve tried it several times only to hear that “the system is wrong, we don’t do it”. It’s annoying but unsurprising – if an employee has to check and count bottles, the company is paying the employee a wage which is probably better spent doing almost anything else than processing 10c bottle refunds. I don’t think the shop gets much in return – even if they got the full admin fee for it, they’d have just 4.94 seconds to handle each bottle assuming they were paid minimum wage, not accounting for other costs the company would incur in keeping the employee on the payroll, paying out superannuation, etc. Because of this, reverse vending machines and automated depots are really the way forward.

But by far, my most major annoyance with the machine itself is the arrangement of the lanes and the frequency of the machines going out of service.

Sometimes, this is because the machine is full, especially when it comes to plastic, cans and cartons with the majority of bottles falling into that category and only half the available lanes to service this. But another reason is possibly down to user error and vandalism. But until such time someone from TOMRA Cleanaway comes to service the machine, your best bet is to take your bottles to another machine or take them home and come again another day.

Once you do the math, for most people, it would seem that it wouldn’t make good financial sense to “return and earn” because it’s more of a case of “returning and losing” … but I still do it mainly for the satisfaction of helping out the environment. But if you thought this was the end of the story … things actually get worse.

The Ugly

Because of the involvement of “real” money, the return and earn scheme has become an income source for some underprivileged people in society. As a result, the society has been transformed nearly overnight into an apocalyptic world where bottles are a form of currency.

While there is no doubt to the positive effect this has – namely bottle litter has declined quite visibly, the ugly results are somewhat less obvious.

Through my daily journey through St Marys, I’ve seen brawls break out in the station area as a number of homeless people battle to secure the “bin territory” for the rights to rifle through the trash cans to recover as many bottles as possible. I’ve seen the same bin-rifling happen throughout the rail network – even at Blacktown and Parramatta, on platforms where there are thin profile bins with small mouths, people are not above putting their whole arm down into the unit just to grab a can or two.

The battle, however, extends beyond that of bins in public areas. Now, even residential waste and recycling bins are not safe, as people have been seen walking up and down the street, rifling through the bins to recover the bottles to cash in. Unfortunately, this is both unsafe for those engaging in the activity as they could end up hurting themselves on waste, but also potentially could put the council’s waste collector at a disadvantage as some households may have signed up for a “fixed” rebate on the condition they continue to dispose their bottles via their recycling bin. That’s not to say that all of those rifling through the bins have good intentions – some are likely to take this further, by tipping bins over and emptying the rubbish all over the ground and leaving it there, much like how many “council clean-up days” end up.

Sometimes, people turn up with shopping carts full of bottles in cases which seems like they are probably from a pub, restaurant or hotel – except, that it’s not. It seems like someone may have gone through the dumpster at an establishment and took their neatly stacked recycling to cash in for themselves. While the establishments could do it via a bulk drop off …they often don’t. I suspect the incentive is just not great enough.

There’s no denying that harsh economic times do drive some people to desperate measures and it would be wrong to say that I am not at least a little sympathetic to their plight, I just don’t think this is what I expected to see out of a bottle return scheme. The issues extend up to the return machines themselves, once they do go out of order, there is often a non-trivial amount of aggression that people harbour towards the machine when they turn up hands full and realise they’re not going to get a payout here. I’ve seen some of them machines punched and other times, people “throwing” bottles into the chute despite the screen telling them otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised if the call-centre operators at TOMRA/Cleanaway have heard some abuse as well.

At the bottle return machines, there is often litter carelessly left behind from those who may have collected ineligible containers or those who may have used boxes to move the bottles around. Shopping trolleys are also usually carelessly strewn about, as they are a favourite of the “roaming collector”.

Aside from being unsightly, there is also the problem of leaky drink bottles and the smell of “bin juice” that is all pervasive at many of the return and earn stations, queueing could be considered a minor unpleasantness. Other times, some more careless people will break glass bottles, leaving shards which could be a danger to users.

It’s no wonder that the reverse vending machines are not placed in the most high-traffic suburbs in the most popular areas – they can attract some rather undesirable characters, result in bad smells and rubbish being left behind.

Return and Earn – Before the Government’s Scheme

It probably isn’t so well known, but prior to the introduction of the Return and Earn scheme, there was a private scheme operated by a company called Envirobank.

They cottoned on to the lack of proper waste stream separation and inefficiency of bottles clogging up waste/recycling bins. As a result, they installed reverse vending machines (called crunch machines) at certain places (with the co-operation of the owners) which took back PET bottles and aluminium cans. The returned items were validated by barcode and then crushed inside the machine, allowing the same sized bins to hold a lot more recycling and reducing the need for frequent emptying.

While the scheme did not pay users back directly, users could swipe their loyalty card to collect crunch credits which could be redeemed for rewards on their website, or they could use the machine as a guest and it would “pay out” a voucher based on its internal programming which might entitle you to food discounts or other rewards.

In fact, in 2016, I wrote about the system on this very blog … only to find that after the introduction of Return and Earn, this system was shut down and instead has “re-emerged” in Queensland as a bag-drop style container return system. It wasn’t a perfect system – it was very much a smaller-scale operation with fewer return points and more limited appeal due to not paying out cash. However, because of this, it didn’t come with the same bad and ugly inconveniences that the Return and Earn scheme now has.

Conclusion

With the introduction of the return and earn scheme, NSW has finally got a container deposit scheme running. As a result of this, eligible containers can be returned for a 10c refund. Because of this cash-equivalency, bottles are now considered valuable and perhaps even a form of currency that some of the underprivileged members of society have capitalised upon.

Unfortunately, the scheme is less of a “return and earn” as a “return and lose” owing to the limited value of the refund, the long wait times, the frequent out-of-service conditions and people turning up with shopping-trolley-loads of containers. The admin-fee in each drink bottle also comprises 26% of the price rise, meaning those who return are still losing out on 3.54c per container. Over the counter returns, similarly, don’t seem to work out from a financial standpoint, with many locations claiming they “don’t handle them” despite being listed.

Add to this some rather unsavory behaviour owing to the competition to collect bottles and it seems what was a simple program to incentivise recycling has exposed a greater gash in the fabric of society – homelessness, unemployment, under-employment and limited welfare. As a result, some people are reduced to rummaging through rubbish and fighting others to secure their “bin territory”, treating bottle return machines like an ATM.

As a result, I’d have to say that while I was enthusiastic about the return and earn scheme, after using it for a while, I’m less enthusiastic. Returning your bottles for a financial reward doesn’t make much sense – but if you don’t, you’re basically agreeing to be “taxed”. Instead, I still return my bottles conscientiously because I believe it makes an environmental difference – not motivated by money but by the prospect of reducing my carbon footprint. Instead, I’m making a conscious decision to avoid bottled drinks altogether – perhaps this was the real message all along.

About lui_gough

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5 Responses to Opinion: Drink Container Recycling – Who “Returns and Earns”?

  1. David says:

    I agree. I think the whole scheme is very badly thought out and effectively a hidden tax. It is almost impossible for a tourist or traveller to obtain the deposit back, so they are just paying 10c more. Same goes for anyone when they are out and about – who is going to carry the container back home with them to eventually make to a return station? Where I live the nearest return station I have seen is 30 minutes drive away. Ridiculous!

  2. Given the inherent sloppiness & laziness of people, my hope is that small robots or nano may be invented to go thru old dumps & recycle the contents.

    I’m astonished that the US sends garbage to China to be recycled! Or dumps it in the ocean on the East coast.

    • lui_gough says:

      I don’t find the idea of sending waste overseas that surprising, although logically, it only happens because it’s financially cheaper to do so due to the labour intensive process and the lower cost of labour in those countries. That being said, often the environmental cost of doing something does not align with the financial cost, so there may well be more pollution due to the transportation process as compared to local recycling that has a negative impact on the environment that is not being accounted for.

      That being said, reuse is better than landfill or “dumping” in the ocean … but once it’s contaminated and mixed in with a lot of other potentially hazardous waste, the recovery route is a lot more difficult. It’s a shame that out of laziness that many people can’t even handle a two-bin system correctly, let alone the more complex multi-bin installations of other countries which break out paper, glass, plastics, combustible and incombustible waste.

      – Gough

  3. Gavin says:

    I think the worst part of this scheme is that the “deposits” for any bottles that don’t go back to Return & Earn machines end up not with State Government (as I though they would) but with the manufacturer of whatever drink was in them. So every empty Coke can you see lying around means that Coke (who don’t exactly need any more of our money) have extracted 10c from us!

  4. sparcie says:

    I guess I’m fortunate to not have seen the ugly side of the scheme where I live, and the availability of the reverse vending machines is reasonable here, they are at all the supermarkets in my local area. I’ve noted they’ve also done well to cover rural areas that previously had no recycling schemes at all. So whilst there are clearly issues I’d say it’s generally a positive thing.

    Whilst the payoff isn’t all that high, it does seem to have drastically increased the amount of recycling via the scheme. I find it useful just because the containers are no longer clogging up my recycling bin at home, and I have more room for other items such as larger containers, paper and cardboard boxes. With them being located at local supermarkets I can take the containers in before doing the weekly shopping.

    It’s probably a good thing the payoff isn’t higher as I could see the ugly side being far worse it it were higher. It could be a bigger problem in a bigger city like Sydney (compared to here in Newcastle) where cost of living is higher and there are more under-privileged people.

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