A truly constructive lesson from Norway on cutting plastics use

We are all seeing the images of plastic debris cluttering the world’s oceans, turtles choking on fishing nets and poisoned whales on beaches. But it’s only lately, it seems, that governments are seeking comprehensive ways to resolve these ecological disasters.

Until now, many of the solutions discussed have had the potential to be draconian, such as a total ban on single-use plastics. That would push up the costs of production, and create incredible migraines for companies relying on plastic packaging for their fizzy drinks and other products.

News in from Norway is that there are workable answers. Infinitum runs a deposit-return scheme that has boosted recycling levels to an incredible 97 per cent of bottles and cans.

The scheme came about after the government imposed an environmental tax on un-refillable plastic containers, which are favored by the drinks industry as they allow more flexibility in size and design. The more that plastic is collected for recycling, the less tax companies pay.

Last year, Infinitum hit the landmark of one billion cans and bottles collected. About 92 per cent of the plastic is recycled to such a high standard it can be reused as drinks containers.

The system is as simple as it’s effective, running as a partnership between importers, producers and vendors. Those participating – about 99 per cent of the industry – agree to use approved labels, bottle tops and glue to improve and streamline the recycling process.

Consumers can return cans and plastic bottles at around 12,000 stores, kiosks and petrol stations and at about 3,700 reverse vending machines, where they receive money back from a small deposit, depending on the size of the container. The stores receive a handling fee, while Infinitum takes care of the entire logistics chain.

In an increasingly online world, Infinitum has also recognized the need to facilitate the collection and payment of deposits from those who don’t venture to the shops. It has teamed with online grocer Kolonial.no to collect directly from households.

To be sure, this kind of system requires a certain mindset. In socially responsible Norway, residents have been returning normal bottles for a deposit for 100 years. In places where the idea is not so culturally ingrained, such schemes have not been as successful. Hawaii, South Australia and Oregon for example have deposit return schemes, but they achieve recycling rates of only 50-65 per cent. That still seems like a pretty decent start.

Also, although Norway’s figures look good, Norwegian producers are still using virgin plastics for 90 per cent of their needs, due to the cheap oil prices in the country. Much of Infinitum’s recycled product leaves Norway and is sold elsewhere in Europe.

For those harking back to the days of the glass milk bottle left on the doorstep, Infinitum argues its method is far preferable to banning single-use plastics altogether. It says glass bottles demand 34 times more energy in production than plastic. It also takes 75 per cent less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled plastic compared with using “virgin” materials.

Unsurprisingly, Infinitum is achieving global recognition for its efforts and has attracted delegations from China and India to study its operations.

The UK has also been visiting Norway. The government in March declared it planned to introduce a similar deposit system. At the moment, UK consumers go through an estimated 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year, with more than 3 billion incinerated, sent to landfill or left to pollute the environment.

Zero Waste Scotland reckons the scheme could boost recycling rates to more than 85 per cent, saving local authorities millions of pounds a year on kerbside collections.

Infinitum is now turning the tables on the policymakers, lobbying hard for measures to cut virgin plastic use in Norway. It wants a materials tax placed on plastics producers, similar to the environmental tax, that would be lower the more recycled plastic is used. That may well be the next step, as we finally grapple with giving up our bad habits.