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Bottle deposit refund system can further help us to reduce plastic waste

By Caroline Kibii | May 11th 2022 | 3 min read

A child with a plastic bottle seated at the top of a heap of garbage at Gioto dumpsite. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Talk of ending single-use plastics and addressing plastic waste has become a melody almost every Kenyan is conversant with. The urgency of finding a lasting solution to plastic waste motivated policy approaches to reduce or eliminate them. The most memorable policy instrument was Kenya's ban on single-use plastic bags in 2017.

Plastic waste is a global problem that we cannot avoid entirely but we can devise solutions that will allow economic development while promoting environmental sustainability. Several approaches exist. One is the can and bottle deposit system, also known as a deposit refund scheme. This is a mechanism that has been applied widely in many countries, especially in the developed world.

In simple terms, the deposit refund system works differently in different countries. Scientists and sustainability experts agree that a standardised methodology is impossible and infeasible, hence policymakers and businesses have to contextualise the scheme to suit a country's socio-political and economic models.

This is how the can and bottle deposit system works; when a consumer purchases a reusable or single-use container or can, part of the money paid includes a deposit which can be reimbursed upon return of the container. The refundable fee depends on the type and size of the container, for example, metallic or plastic. A 1000ml bottle has a higher value compared to a 500ml one. The refundable fee is always printed on the container.

Let's take the example of Sweden. The deposit refund system dates back to the 1980s, with the current system dating back to 2006. The deposit machines are stationed mostly in supermarkets and shopping stores where shoppers often use the refund receipts to pay for their items instead of taking cash although one is at liberty to do so. The system is popular to the extent it has a Swedish vocabulary called Pantamera. This scheme was popularised by multiple parties, including media advertisements and artists.

Is it a perfect solution for Swedes? No, single-use containers are still being generated. However, it provokes user behaviour change, promotes cleanliness, and paves way for sustainability. Sweden aims to go a step further by designing products with a long lifespan that can be reused and repaired as it forges for a zero-waste economy.

How is this applicable to the Kenyan situation? Solid waste management, let alone plastic waste is a significant challenge in most of our urban areas. The problem is due to negligent citizen behaviours. While there are many ways to fix the menace, a can and bottle deposit refund system would be a viable solution that can motivate citizens to take individual initiative to sort waste at home and manufacturing companies to produce cans and bottles that can be taken back for recycling under government’s stipulated guidelines. It is more or less a circular concept creating a closed loop within the production-supply-consumption chain.

Notably, this is not a new concept in Kenya. We have for a long time had the cash refund for glass beverage bottles. There was a sense of responsibility not to break or lose the bottle.

With the cash-back in mind, it is obvious that majority of people will want to get refunds whenever they return the bottles or cans. This would translate to a reduced accumulation of single-use containers in our environment; oceans, beaches, rivers and parks. Reckless disposal would reduce. The effect undulates to an overall waste generation consciousness.

The deposit refund system on single-use containers would reinforce the 2017 ban on single-use plastic bags and the 2020 presidential directive banning single-use items in protected areas.

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