Container return scheme: An option for reducing litter and waste to landfill

An estimated 2.3 billion glass, plastic, aluminium, paperboard and other single use drink containers are consumed each year in New Zealand. Many end up in landfills or littering streets, streams, beaches and other public spaces. The Government is investigating a container return scheme as one way of addressing the issue.

About container return schemes

Container return schemes incentivise consumers and businesses to return beverage containers (eg, bottles, cans etc) for recycling and/or refilling. They do this by including a refundable deposit (eg,10-cents or more) in the price of purchase.
Consumers get their deposit refunded when they return their empty container(s) to a designated scheme drop-off point for recycling.

International schemes provide deposits ranging from 7 to 49 cents (NZ equivalent value) per container.

Container return schemes help to increase recycling rates, reduce litter, and reduce emissions by decreasing the need for virgin packaging production. They operate in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, the USA and Europe.

Issues and options being considered in the investigation of a New Zealand container return scheme design

The following issues and options are being considered: 

  • The types of bottles/containers included within the scheme (eg, glass, plastic, aluminium, liquid paper board).
  • At what level the deposit should be set.
  • How to ensure that returning containers to a scheme drop-off point is sufficiently easy and convenient for the public.
  • Whether the scheme has recycling-rate targets it is required to meet.
  • Who governs and manages the scheme.
  • What the costs of operating a scheme are.
  • How a container return scheme operates alongside council-run kerbside collection systems.

Groups involved in the project

  • Auckland and Marlborough councils jointly proposed the scheme. Staff are on the project team.
  • Scheme Design Working Group –made up of industry (eg, beverage manufacturers, retailers, recyclers) and community representatives. 
  • Technical Advisory Group – made up of people with financial, product stewardship and beverage industry expertise. The group’s role is to review progress and provide advice on design issues.
  • The Ministry – we provided funding for the project via the Waste Minimisation Fund. Our staff attend project meetings and provide support and advice to the Minister. 

Terms of reference for the project

The terms of reference include the following: 

Outcomes

  • Change the way New Zealand values beverage containers that will see increased recycling and new opportunities for refilling.
  • Reduce the volume of plastics and other container litter currently ending up in our streams, marine environment, public spaces and landfills.
  • Give effect to circular economy outcomes and any future priority product guidelines.

Guiding principles

  • Make it easier and convenient to return containers across New Zealand.
  • Design a solution that is cost effective and efficient.
  • Improve quality and marketability of recyclables and assess impact of design on current kerbside and other collection and processing systems.
  • Create new opportunities for employment, community participation and fund-raising for charities and social enterprises.

In addition, the design is expected to consider opportunities to:

  • use technology and innovations to optimise performance of the container return scheme
  • support greater investment in re-manufacturing and regional development
  • align objectives with the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Ao Māori
  • mitigate climate change.

Project actions so far

Former Associate Minister Eugenie Sage announced funding for an investigation of a container return scheme in 2019.

The Scheme Design Working Group (SDWG) has evaluated the Project Team’s final report and recommendations.

The CRS Technical Advisory Group has provided its final advice to Ministry officials.

Following completion of the co-design process, some SDWG stakeholders discussed the recommendations with Ministry officials.

Next steps

The Ministry is coordinating a process to analyse all outputs from the project. This has included additional modelling and direct engagement with key stakeholders.

We will then advise Ministers on options, including:

  • costs and benefits of introducing a scheme
  • critical scheme design options
  • possible next steps.

If a decision to proceed with a scheme is made, further development will be required over the next two years before a scheme is implemented.

Find out more

Further information on the Design Working Group co-design process: Container return scheme [Marlborough District Council website] 

Media release from former Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage: Work underway for beverage container return scheme [Beehive website]