It's a throw-back to a time "Ready to Roll" was playing on TV and Graham Mourie was captaining the All Blacks - but could the cash-for-trash bottle deposit scheme make a return?

For children growing up in the 1970s, returning soft drink bottles to recycling centres was an easy way to earn a few cents for sweets at the corner dairy.

Decades after the scheme was scrapped in the 1980s, there are growing calls for a revival.

A 15,000-signature petition, organised by the Kiwi Bottle Drive campaign and now before Parliament's Environment Select Committee, is requesting a scheme with a bottle return rate of at least 85 per cent.

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Last week, National announced that, if elected to government, it would bring in a scheme that would either run alongside existing kerbside or recycling programmes, or be industry-led.

A report published by the Sustainable Business Network late last year advocated one – and now the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council has proposed its own model.

WHY THE NEED?

New Zealanders buy roughly 2.23 billion beverages each year - that's 6.1 million bottles a day.

Yet, only 35 to 40 per cent are recycled. The rest are either landfilled or littered. That's the equivalent of 700 Boeing 747 airplanes filled with bottles.

More than half of our bottles are drunk outside the home, meaning they end up in landfill or on the streets and in waterways.

The other half get collected at the kerb, but most of these end up in landfill because of high levels of contamination.

More than half of our bottles are drunk outside the home, meaning they end up in landfill or on the streets and in waterways. Photo / File
More than half of our bottles are drunk outside the home, meaning they end up in landfill or on the streets and in waterways. Photo / File

"The amount of plastic here is significant. By volume and weight, we're talking about taking more plastic out of landfill and waterways than the plastic bag ban," Kiwi Bottle Drive spokesperson Holly Dove said.

"We know, from research, that plastic bottles and lids are an enormous problem on coastlines and turn into microplastics in the ocean."

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New Zealand's recycling was at a rate of 35 to 45 per cent, she said, but countries with bottle deposits had rates of 85 per cent.

"And more and there are other great benefits, such as fundraising for schools and marae and a chance for kids to earn some spare change. Plus, litter would drop by 65 per cent and more, as it has with other countries that have introduced a scheme."

So how does a scheme actually work?

A drink bottle or can would have a deposit put on it of between 10c to 20c and people get this money back when they take the container back to a deposit place, which they can find at their local supermarket or community centre.

This is the system New Zealand used to have with glass bottles, but which ended when it became cheaper to mass-produce plastic.

"We now realise what an enormous problem plastic is, and now with China refusing our recycling, our waste crisis is only getting more serious," Dove said.

"Container deposits mean we would collect and recycle 90 per cent and beyond of all beverage containers and, once we've got collection points in place, there is nothing to say we couldn't collect other recyclable goods too, like e-waste."

How a container deposit scheme could work. Image / Kiwi Bottle Drive
How a container deposit scheme could work. Image / Kiwi Bottle Drive

Because of high-quality collections of material, she said, recyclers would actually have something to use, meaning onshore recycling and even refillable systems could be set up.

"The system we're advocating for is one which works for communities.

"We already have an incredible network of recycling groups set up around the country which could easily host bottle depots and they could earn an income from doing so.

"Community groups benefit in terms of fundraising and everyone wins if the community is involved."

Some schemes overseas were run at a profit for industry, she said, which meant communities missed out.

"We'd like to see a hybrid version whereby there are deposit points in convenient locations, like supermarkets, but also community groups can run them as well."

The Product Stewardship Council's proposed scheme involves every beverage container up to 3L in capacity carrying a 20c deposit rate.

This would be redeemable at drop-off depots, recycling centres, and even reverse vending machines at supermarkets and shopping malls across New Zealand.

Along with reducing pollution, the council said a scheme would improve bottle-to-bottle glass recycling in parts of the country where this was not happening, and potentially even open the way for bottle refill systems, like the old-school milk run.

Council spokesperson Warren Snow said the scheme could be brought in without having to change current legislation.

"The costs are fully accounted for, with only a small contribution necessary from the beverage industry of roughly one cent per bottle," he said.

"That's a small price for producers to pay to ensure that their bottles and cans are getting recycled, rather than clogging up our oceans, waterways and landfills."

HOW THEY WORK OVERSEAS

National environment spokesperson Scott Simpson said the party had been interested in two schemes used overseas.

One was a scheme that had proven successful in Australia. Since New South Wales introduced deposits at the end of 2017, the recycling rate had more than doubled from 32 per cent to more than 70 per cent.

The preferred system was one that had been introduced in Norway.

There, it was up to the manufacturers and beverage sector to be responsible for ensuring a high percentage of containers they made and sold were recycled.

While most schemes were based on a deposit and refund model, they differed around the world.

In Europe, for instance, most schemes obligated large retailers to take back all the containers they sold, so they then contract a recycling company to set up facilities in their centres – such as reverse vending machines – for their customers to use.

Germany's recycling rate was now close to 98 per cent, which meant there were far fewer plastic drink containers reaching the ocean.

Robert Kelman, of Reloop Pacific, has been working with Australian state governments introducing schemes, and has also been advising policymakers here.

"I'm meeting lots of different government people to share some of the lessons of what's happening in Australia, where only two states are left not either already with or now implementing a scheme – Victoria and Tasmania," he said.

"Critical amongst these issues is that the scheme works in getting rid of container litter and increasing recycling - and if New Zealand is to go down this path, the design of the scheme should be to maximise convenience for the consumer."

Dove said her group's campaign had the backing of 90 per cent of the country's councils, while public opinion polls showed the majority of people were behind a scheme.

A container deposit scheme could be brought in without having to change current legislation, NZ Product Stewardship Council spokesperson Warren Snow says. Photo / File
A container deposit scheme could be brought in without having to change current legislation, NZ Product Stewardship Council spokesperson Warren Snow says. Photo / File

She said although the waste management industry had also been in support, beverage companies had traditionally opposed the idea.

"Although, this is starting to change and across the ditch in Australia; we've now seen Coca Cola actually running deposit schemes themselves," she said.

"Recyclers want a scheme because they can get high-quality recyclable material which is valuable to them. We've had backing from Flight Plastics and other waste disposal agencies."

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said a deposit scheme was worth considering alongside other options like improving public place recycling, upgrading kerbside collection services and industry playing a bigger role.

But she added introducing a scheme could affect existing kerbside and commercial recycling collection systems, and it would first need to be ensured that these didn't become uneconomic.

"Councils and industry have invested heavily in new infrastructure and services over recent years."

The results of container deposit schemes overseas had been good in some areas, but mixed in others, she said.

"We need to ensure that if we introduce a CDS here that it is designed for the New Zealand context.

"It is worth exploring the option of implementing a CDS in New Zealand. However, work on this will follow the Government's priority work programme for waste."

That programme included expanding the Waste Disposal Levy to all landfills, improving data, investing more strategically in infrastructure and innovation, and bringing in mandatory product stewardship for problem products like vehicle tyres and e-waste.

The programme was also working on developing a national circular economy strategy that would essentially design waste out of the system.

Dove felt the Government was dragging its heels on considering a bottle deposit scheme.

"What they don't seem to realise is that a CDS could solve a lot of the problems they're working on."