Anti-litter group under fire for backing packaging industry on drinks containers

The anti-litter charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB), has been accused of being a “creature” of the corporate packaging industry after it came out against a Scottish Government plan to cut litter by charging deposits on drinks containers.

Most environmental groups support the introduction of a deposit scheme because they think it would cut waste by encouraging bottles, cans and cartons to be returned and recycled. But KSB says it is a bad idea - echoing the views of big drinks firms, supermarkets and the packaging industry, with which it has developed close ties.

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The Scottish Environment Minister, Richard Lochhead, launched an investigation into the feasibility of a deposit scheme for Scotland after he saw how effective it was in reducing litter in Sweden. In May, he called for evidence from industry and others, after publishing a report highlighting the benefits of 10p or 20p deposits on drinks containers.

Deposits would encourage people to return containers and get their money back, the minister argued. Like charging for plastic carrier bags, a deposit scheme “has the potential to be very beneficial for the environment”, he said.

Leading environmental groups agree that a deposit scheme would reduce litter and boost recycling. But the scheme has been rejected by drink, retail and packaging companies because of the difficulties they will have collecting and returning containers.

Now KSB has sided with industry, dismissing a deposit scheme as an “unhelpful distraction”. There is a “lack of evidence that it would deliver any significant reduction in litter”, it says.

KSB, which brands itself as “the charity for Scotland’s environment”, was commissioned in 2013 to survey litter by the packaging industry group, Incpen, which includes Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Coca-Cola, Diageo, Britvic, Nestle, Cadbury and others. The resulting report has been used to argue against a deposit scheme.

KSB is also being given £1 million by Tesco, raised by the charge on plastic carrier bags. And a KSB ‘local environmental champions’ project is being funded by Coca-Cola.

KSB’s stance has come under fierce fire from fellow environmentalists. “KSB is in danger of becoming a creature of the packaging industry, rather than a serious environmental group,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Deposit return schemes save materials, create local jobs and reduce climate emissions. It is very hard to understand how KSB can deny the clear evidence that they also directly reduce litter.”

Dixon accused KSB of being too close to the drinks and packaging industry. “They urgently need to sever those links if they are to get back to being a credible player in the waste debate,” he said.

The Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, described KSB’s position as “bizarre”. She said: “I would understand if people began to question whether Keep Scotland Beautiful has become too close to the industries they should be challenging.”

The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland said that “as an independent charity” they were convinced that a deposit return system for drinks containers would reduce litter. “We are disappointed that KSB doesn't share our view,” said the association’s director, John Mayhew.

Calum Duncan, from the Marine Conservation Society, argued that a deposit scheme would help clean up beaches. “Many stretches of our coast are blighted with drinks bottles and we are confident that by giving these containers value, a deposit scheme would lead to a demonstrable reduction in their number.”

KSB insisted that it was not opposed to a deposit return scheme in principle. “However, the scale of the investment required to roll out this proposed scheme, the lack of consultation with key stakeholders, and the absence of relevant evidence that it would deliver any significant reduction in litter, means it is not the right solution to changing littering behaviour in Scotland at this time,” said a KSB spokesman.

“As the charity for Scotland’s environment, we will continue to utilise our knowledge and expertise in litter prevention to pursue a robust, independent approach to tackling Scotland's litter problem, seeking to make Scotland the cleanest country in Europe.”

The Packaging Recycling Group Scotland, which brings together drinks, packaging and retail firms, argued that evidence for a deposit scheme was flawed. “It will undermine existing kerbside recycling, tackle only a small proportion of litter, significantly increase road miles and carbon emissions and ultimately cost consumers, business and councils more money,” said the group’s Jane Bickerstaffe.

The Scottish Government said it was pleased that its proposals had sparked a debate and welcomed all views. “Countries such as Germany, Sweden and Norway already have such systems in place as do parts of Canada, Australia and the United States,” said a spokeswoman. “We are keen to explore the opportunities for Scotland.”