This morning consumers are waking up to the news that the UK government is proposing a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles and canned drinks. The objective being to increase recycling rates and reduce waste caused by single use plastics. Whilst this is welcomed by the many environmental agencies, some critics have been quick to point out that schemes like this are already in place in some parts of Europe and that the UK is just playing catch-up.

Personally, I think it’s better late than never. Also, it is being suggested that schemes like these disincentivise the use of household recycling. I’m not sure I entirely agreed with this, ultimately if the plastic bottle makes it to the recycling centre via a deposit return scheme or by council waste collection, does it really matter? But I can understand the point that this may put the whole kerbside collection infrastructure into question, which would be bad news.

We have all seen the images from Planet Earth II - sea animals eating plastic or the image of the poor turtle deformed by a six-pack ring. Exposure like this and China no longer accepting plastic material from the rest of the world have been the fuel that cause such schemes to be proposed. So the UK needs effective options to tackle the mounting problem that is plastic waste.

The human problem

Let me take a deep breath, step back and look at the real problem: It’s not the plastic, it’s the humans that use the plastic. The problem is that many people can’t be bothered to recycle. Let’s be honest, we can often be a lazy bunch that doesn't want to take the time to understand the material and how it should be recycled. We know from our own research that sometimes we can't even be bothered to put the bottle in a bin clearly marked “PUT PLASTIC WASTE HERE”.

Also, we expect to be incentivised for simply being good citizens. We may not recycle unless there is something in it for us; a harsh commentator might say that we care about the environment only if we get something in return. You can probably tell I’m quite passionate about this, personally and professionally, but I'll admit I’m often guilty of the same behaviour.

There’s an app for that!

In my view the best way to change behaviour is by getting into the consumer's psyche and nudging them towards doing a job they are supposed to do. So how do we encourage better behaviour, incentivising the consumer and also provide benefit to the brands involved?

Last year we investigated how technology could be used to improve the efficacy of recycling and incentivising consumers to recycle, whilst addressing the end-of-life problem faced by consumer brands. The result was a smarter recycling concept. The system identifies the type of waste the consumer wants to dispose of using a combination of machine vision and machine learning, then indicates which section of the waste disposal unit the item should be placed in.

Through a connected phone app the customer can be identified and rewarded once the item is correctly deposited. This reward could be points to spend, or even a donation to charity. For consumer brands or food outlets sponsoring a smarter recycling point, or even having one in store, the system could encourage customer loyalty and repeat purchases through a reward scheme. It acts as a marketing tool, to show that the brand is proactively leading the way to a sustainable future and it provides additional consumer insights, such as when and where products are consumed. This end-of-life touch point not only extends a brand’s customer engagement, but helps to reduce the loss of potentially recyclable materials to landfill.

It's a hard road ahead, but this is just one example how we are helping our clients to achieve their sustainability targets.

Sajith Wimalaratne
Food & Beverage Commercial Manager

With a food science and chemical engineering background, Sajith has been providing technology intelligence, market analysis and strategy consultancy to some of the world's largest corporations. This spans industries including food and beverage, pharmaceutical, agri-food, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), healthcare, consumer packaged goods (CPG), petroleum, chemicals and materials.