THE Scottish Government’s flagship recycling scheme has been branded “farcical” after the minister in charge said there could be a major change just 48 hours before a key deadline.

Green Lorna Slater today said she was “actively considering” a one-year exemption for small drinks producers from the deposit return scheme (DRS).

However she defining who would qualify as a small producer was still undecided, and there would need to be a "conversation" about it.

The deadline for all producers to sign up to the scheme is Tuesday.

Opposition parties said the confusion over the DRS, which is supposed to go live across Scotland on August 16, had now become acute, and businesses must be in despair.

The SNP leadership race added to the uncertainty, with health Secretary Humza Yousaf today saying he would also give small producers a year’s grace, and finance secretary Kate Forbes saying she wanted to pause and review the DRS to improve it. 

There was a “wave of concern” among businesses already facing big energy bills, she said.

Under the plans, customers in Scotland will pay a 20p deposit on drinks in cans and glass and plastic bottles, which they can redeem by returning the empties.

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The producers pay a fee to Circularity Scotland, the private body running the scheme, to deal with the empties, or set up their own system. 

Shops, bars and restaurants face handling the returns, or installing reverse vending machines to accept them.

Similar schemes have been successful around the world, in countries, regions and cities.

However small producers in the UK fear the costs, including Scotland-only labels, could make it too costly to sell their drinks north of the border.

Appearing on BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show, Ms Slater, the circular economy minister, said the DRS was “definitely going ahead” but could also be revised.

She said she was “actively considering” a one-year pause for small producers.

She said: “There are two different things in line here. One is signing up with the scheme administrator and the deadline for that is Tuesday, and I would encourage all businesses who are affected by this scheme to contact Circularity Scotland and find out what they need to do to get registered with Circularity Scotland by Tuesday. 

“But that is the registration process by which they participate in the scheme.

“In terms of actively getting their product on the shelf and making sure the labelling is right and so forth, we will then work with small producers going forward to bring them into the scheme in a pragmatic way that works for them. So that's two different deadlines.”

Asked the definition of “small producer”, Ms Slater said: “That is exactly the kind of question that we need to have a conversation about.”

Reminded this was just 48 hours from the deadline to sign up to the DRS, the Lothians MSP went on: “These businesses need to contact Circularity Scotland and have that one-on-one conversation about what's right for them.

“Every business in Scotland is slightly different and has different needs. 

“And Circularity. Scotland is very keen to speak to those businesses who haven't yet had that conversation and find out what they need to do. 

“And I absolutely encourage them to do that. Circularity Scotland will be able to help them through that. The deadline is Tuesday. SEPA can also help support businesses with their registration. They can talk to SEPA about how they can comply with this.”

Tory MSP Maurice Golden said: “Drinks producers, wholesalers and the hospitality industry in general would have had their head in their hands listening to Lorna Slater’s shambolic and clueless interview.

“It’s mind-boggling that the minister in charge of the Deposit Return Scheme should be telling businesses she is ‘actively considering’ a grace period for small firms, just hours before Tuesday’s deadline for them to sign up to it.

“This scheme they’re being asked to sign up for, in order to continue trading here, could put them out of business – and yet they don’t even know how it will operate.

“Lorna Slater was also unable to define what would constitute a ‘small producer’, and had the cheek to tell businesses to contact Circularity Scotland to find out.

“Instead of taking the only sensible option – and pausing the scheme pending an independent review of how it will operate – Lorna Slater is recklessly ploughing on, like a kamikaze driver accelerating towards a cliff edge.

“This madness has to stop. We all want a successful DRS scheme but livelihoods are being jeopardised by a minister who’s out of her depth, with her head buried in the sand.

“That’s why I’ve written to the three SNP leadership candidates seeking guarantees that, if elected, they will overrule Lorna Slater and put the scheme on hold while an independent review is carried out.”

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Labour’s Colin Smyth said: "Labour has been pressing for a phased-in approach to any Deposit Return Scheme to protect small businesses, so any U-turn on this by the government would be welcome.

“But given that Lorna Slater rejected a similar proposal because it came from Labour just a few days ago shows she is simply making policy up on the hoof. Businesses have just days to sign up to the scheme but they still have no idea what they are signing up for .

“We need urgent clarity from the Government. This farcical approach from the Green-SNP coalition is damaging to many small firms who fear going out of business and is actually undermining the Deposit Return Scheme itself".

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: "The deadline to sign up to the Scottish Government's Deposit Return Scheme is looming on Tuesday. Yet there are still so many questions about how the scheme will work in practice left unanswered.

"We cannot reasonably expect businesses to sign up to such a scheme when there is still such an acute lack of clarity.

"Scottish Liberal Democrats were the first party to call for a deposit return scheme and we have consistently urged the Scottish Government to learn from successful schemes elsewhere in Europe.

"The Scottish Government needs to press pause on this scheme, undertake an independent review and fully address the concerns of businesses. To fail to do this would risk harming businesses, damaging public confidence and weakening the case for a deposit return scheme."

Green MSP Mark Ruskell said: "All of us have seen how cans, bottles and glass are blighting our coasts, streets and communities. That is why the scheme is so vital. “Any suggestion of a halt or delay to the deposit return scheme would be totally reckless and irresponsible.

"Automatic return machines are already being installed by retailers across the country and the scheme is creating over 500 green jobs, with recruitment already well underway.

"Dropping or even delaying the scheme now wouldn’t just be bad for the planet – it would undermine all of this investment, and it would destroy jobs.

"This is a robust scheme that has been designed with industry and is based on successful models around the world. It will be the first of its kind in the UK. It will be a vital step on our journey to a cleaner and greener future.”