Reverse vending: A reversal of opportunity?

Reverse vending is where a bottle or can is placed into a vending machine and a coin, token or redemption voucher is offered in return.

Reverse vending machines are often used in international container deposit schemes and certainly have a place in a well-designed container deposit scheme (CDS). They enable redemptions for containers in places where there is insufficient space for a bottle depot, or to fill in gaps in service provision.

However, as well as being one of the most expensive ways to collect beverage containers, stand-alone reverse vending in the NZ setting would exclude the wider social benefits seen with CDS such as:

  • The creation of jobs (up to 2,700 in NZ), particularly for youth and low-skilled workers
  • An ability to generate funds for community groups such as Scouts and Kapa Haka groups
  • The development of a network of resource recovery centres which can then provide additional services and be convenient drop-off points for other materials; paving the way for other product stewardship schemes currently unviable due to a lack of collection points

The introduction of stand-alone reverse vending machines, outside of a nationwide CDS, would not include any of these benefits, and would undermine existing community recycling centres – taking away key income streams and threatening their financial viability.

Whereas, when introduced, a CDS will provide ongoing financial stability for community recycling centres, through providing an additional consistent revenue stream.

Since the NZPSC started campaigning for the introduction of a NZ CDS, some councils have been approached with offers to bring in reverse vending machines as a council provided service. While the showy marketing campaigns appear exciting on the surface, a deeper examination raises some serious considerations.

Most councils have Waste Management and Minimisation Plans (WMMP) that support product stewardship and CDS. Asking councils to introduce reverse vending machines as a council provided service runs counter to most WMMPs which call for industry responsibility.

Council funded or provided reverse vending machines will be a noose around council’s necks in the same way public place recycling has been.

In addition, history shows us that support for an inferior, voluntary schemes and initiatives ultimately undermines efforts to bring in a nationwide, sustainable and efficient product stewardship.

Just as E-Days stopped E-Waste product stewardship, the $5 ‘recycling fee’ held up tyre product stewardship and the Soft Plastic Recycling scheme is hindering the introduction of regulation for plastic bags – council-provided reverse-vending will provide industry with an out: “we don’t need regulation, look – there’s something in place to deal with it”.

As we know, it matters not whether a voluntary scheme is effective, efficient or even has any outcomes at all – the existence of a voluntary initiative provides politicians with an excuse not to enact measures under Section 2 of the WMA2008.

The NZPSC is working towards a CDS model that includes a network of community based resource recovery depots, which will be financially viable due to the CDS scheme. Once we have this, we have a stronger position to argue for other product stewardship schemes (as we will have the collection network). Placing council-funded, council managed reverse vending machines across the country, instead of a network of depots, undermines our position and we will lose that future advantage.

The question that needs to be asked is what would you prefer – a council funded, council managed reverse vending system, or a proper CDS scheme which is based on industry responsibility, creates local jobs and provides community benefits?

The problem with trial waste services is that it is hard to take services away from the public once they have been introduced, and the costs and responsibility always creep further and further onto the public purse.

Reverse vending outside of a national CDS means councils retain responsibility for waste and industry continues to take no responsibility.

For further information see The Incentive to Recycle

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