Bottling It. On the Polluter Pays Principle
Our economic model is broken. The requirement to put shareholder value over any other consideration is what led BP chief executive Bernard Looney to water down his company’s 2025 carbon reduction target from 40% to just 25%. He explained the decision: “We’re going to be driven by value. That’s what we’re going to be driven by. And if we see value, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we won’t.”
We think living on a habitable planet ought to count as valuable.
Just as capitalism expropriates wealth from their workforce and hands it to shareholders, so it also externalises costs onto the public, onto governments, and onto our environment. A company that voluntarily bears all its own environmental costs would be outcompeted on price by those prepared to pollute our towns and countryside, or our seas and our skies.
Let’s take another sector: the drinks industry. Of the almost 3 billion cans and bottles they sold in Scotland last year, almost 1.4 billion were wasted – sent to landfill, burnt in incinerators, or discarded into our environment.
And plastic bottles recovered through kerbside recycling can’t be remade into plastic bottles. Materials from kerbside are too contaminated for that, so they get “downcycled” into lower value products, doing nothing to reduce the insatiable demand of the plastics industry, boosting the profits of those self-same fossil fuel corporates.
It’s a linear economic model, with some warm words about the need for a circular economy. Extract, produce, sell, discard, get someone else to clean up the litter.
Shifting other parts of the economy over to a truly circular model will be a substantial and difficult task. Some materials will simply need to be banned, like plastic cotton buds and microbeads were: other options exist to get the same job done. Other products will need to be redesigned, many will need to be collected in new ways, and some may need to be taxed to ensure companies have an incentive to make the transition.
But drinks cans and bottles are the single simplest part of this transition. Modern deposit return systems typically deliver 97% recycling rates, massive litter reductions, and single stream materials that can be recycled at food grade to reduce corporate demand for virgin plastic.
It’s a simple example of the “polluter pays” principle, making drinks companies responsible for the first time for their full costs of operation. And it’s a big shift away from a business model that wastes almost half of the materials used in its operation. Polluter pays is not a new concept, being part of the Rio Declaration at the 1992 Earth summit, but it will be transformative here, as it is everywhere else it’s used.
Reloop, an international non-profit organisation working on circular economy policy, predict that by the end of 2026 almost three quarters of a billion people in more than 70 jurisdictions will be using these systems every day, up from 291m people in 2020.
Scotland’s system is due to start this August, despite industry having successfully lobbied for two delays of more than a year each. Each time the supermarkets and big drinks companies say they just need a little more time, stalling so they can squeeze a little more profit at the expense of the environment and those that are left to pick up the litter.
These other systems across Europe and beyond are all run by industry, as Scotland’s will be, and the theory is that encourages them to run more efficiently, as that keeps their own costs down. At the moment industry in Scotland hasn’t yet risen properly to the challenge, but the inexorable need to reduce their costs will soon start to force their hand.
In Norway, their deposit system is so efficient that it actually pays producers a small fee for every can they sell. And why not? The system operator is essentially being given a substantial amount of high quality aluminium to resell, and that value slightly outweighs the costs of collecting it in. This is what the Scottish system should be aiming for.
A visit to any country that uses deposits tells you immediately how successful it is there, and how it will be here. The familiar drifts of cans and plastic bottles are just gone. The endless shards of broken glass we all pick our way through – gone.
But transformative as it will be, it still only deals with one aisle of the average supermarket, and one tiny part of our unsustainable, single-use and polluting economic model. Deposit return should just be the start. What if the polluter pays principle was applied to every single product and service on sale? What if it was applied to the oil and gas industry?
The choice now is the same it’s always been. What’s more important? A livable planet, clean streets, a sharp reduction in plastics in our countryside and seas … or a little more unearned income for shareholders?