Canadian Vending

Reverse vending: Bring back your empties and save the planet

October 31, 2008
By Jimmy Lee Shreeve

revendspend_vending_bankOctober 31, 2008 – Once kids made a penny for every bottle they returned, now Tescos and other organizations are installing recycling machines that reward you with points

Once kids made a penny
for every bottle they returned, now Tescos and other organizations are
installing recycling machines that reward you with points
now Tescos and other organizations are installing recycling machines that reward you with points, vouchers and even MP3 players.

It vanished from British life over 30 years ago – a victim of the throwaway culture of the 1960s and 1970s.
# Plastic recycling still not where it should be
# Councils 'don't know where some recycling goes'
# Will recycling your rubbish save the planet?

But now, the great institution of being rewarded for returning your empty bottles is making a comeback.


In the past, kids used to be able to make a penny or two on the "empties" they returned.

Naturally, many saw this as an opportunity to top up their pocket money and scoured the streets in search of discarded bottles, which being made of glass were reusable.

Today's return schemes typically involve specialist recycling units called "reverse vending" machines. Unlike in the past, you aren't rewarded directly with cash; instead, you get money off vouchers or are put in the running to win things like MP3 players.

Tesco is installing reverse vending machines in nine stores in Scotland, all scheduled to be in action in January 2009. There will be a bigger roll-out if the pilot scheme is successful.

Tesco's machines are fully automated. They use spectrometry and photography to identify what an object is made of before sending it to the relevant bin, where the item is shredded and compressed.

This makes recycling waste easier and saves fuel because fewer journeys are needed to empty the unit as the material inside has been compressed.

David North, Tesco's community and government director, said: "We are committed to helping our customers adopt green habits. They've asked us to make recycling easier, so this is what our new automated machines are designed to do."

One of the reasons Scotland was chosen for the initial trial was because in January 2008 the Scottish Government announced a national zero waste strategy – committing itself to achieving a recycling rate of 70 per cent and cutting municipal waste sent to landfill by 5 per cent by 2025.

Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: "Reverse vending has terrific potential to improve our rates of recycling and evidence from Scandinavia and Canada shows that it has reaped real rewards."

In Denmark, a statutory system has been put in place, where deposits have to be paid on all cans of beer, cider, soft drinks, alcopops and energy drinks.

This has achieved a return rate of 85 per cent on bottles brought back for recycling, and close to 100 per cent on bottles returned for reuse. The country is planning to do the same with mineral water, lemonade and iced tea from December this year.

In April, after calls from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) to halt growing levels of litter, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ordered a study into the feasibility of implementing a deposit scheme here in Britain.

The idea had been put forward by CPRE president and author, Bill Bryson, who said that placing redeemable deposits on every drink container would give litter a value, and would encourage groups like the scouts, homeless organisations and churches to collect empties to raise funds.

He also pointed out that when deposits were introduced in Iowa 20 years ago litter was reduced by 70 per cent – simply because people saw picking up litter as a way of making money. "I can see the attraction of take-back schemes with a reward," he said.

Some schemes of this nature, particularly on a local level, did not die out 30 years ago. Lowcocks Lemonade, for example, which was founded in 1880 and is based in Middlesbrough, currently gives 15p back on every bottle returned undamaged.

On its website,, the company says: "Unlike plastic bottles which are thrown away and go into expensive landfill sites, your empty Lowcocks bottles are sterilised and used again and again."

The big push, however, is for reverse vending machines, which are considered to be at the cutting edge of recycling technology. Last year, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth said: "Britain has been living in the dark ages in terms of recycling. There is this technology, such as reverse vending machines, which are used abroad, and we should be making more use of it."

Such words were not lost on Des and Fergal Rogers, two businessmen who have set up multi-million pound recycling venture called Reuse Reward in Ireland. Their machines, which are shipped in from the US, crush bottles and cans and reward people with points that can be reclaimed for mobile phones, MP3 players and other prizes.

According to Randy McKee, chief executive of Reuse Reward, only one-in-five plastic bottles and aluminium cans are recycled in Ireland, with the remainder going to landfill or dumped illegally. He expects this to change because of the incentives offered by the Reuse Reward scheme.

"People don't pitch stuff that's worth something," he says. "It's fair to say we're very enthusiastic."

Sales manager, Dean Keating, echoes his confidence. He says the firm has had a "phenomenal response" to its machines and that they expect to have gathered 1m cans for recycling in Dublin by the end of this year.

In some locations, the Reuse Reward machines are attracting up to 4,000 used bottles and cans a day and the monthly collections soon had to be changed to weekly.

Such systems are proving equally popular in universities and colleges. In November 2007, Reading University Students' Union (RUSU) became the first university in the UK to install a reverse vending machine on campus.

RUSU president Sally Pearman said: "If I take a can and put it in the machine it will clean it and compress it. In return, the machine will issue me with a ticket giving discounts and I will make money back. There are thousands of these machines in Europe, but we're the first university in Britain to get one."

Barry College in Wales has also installed a reverse vending machine that rewards users with discount vouchers which can be used to buy food and drink in the refectory. As an added incentive, one golden ticket is issued each term – whoever gets it wins an iPod.

The Eastgate shopping centre in Basildon, Essex – which has scooped many environmental awards – set up a reverse vending machine in December 2006.

Within the first five months more than 2m plastic bottles were recycled, and during that time, some 1,000 aluminium cans were collected every week.

Veteran green campaigner Prof David Bellamy believes technology like this is the way ahead to solve some of our environmental ills.

Speaking at the Eastgate centre, after it installed its reverse vending machine, he said: "Every day we hear stories we are all going to be dead by 2050 because of carbon emissions, the forests being cut down and the fishing stocks being depleted, but we have the solutions in technology and our scientists, we just need more money invested in them."