JEFF CORBETT: Why Return and Earn falls short

I'D been expecting to find a young person at the door with an offer I wouldn't refuse. He or she would take off my hands every Saturday all the bottles and cans and cartons that were making my life such a misery. All I had to do was put them into a bin or bag and my young caller would quietly spirit them away.

Wonderful, and I'd imagined it would be a wonderful result for the young entrepreneur who delivered his or her smiling proposal to 100 or so households over a few urban blocks. When the Return and Earn scheme offering 10 cents a container was introduced at the beginning of last December I imagined a door-knocking procession of early teenagers and younger children.

But things have changed since I had an eagle eye for a bottle worth sixpence or later 5 or 10 cents as a deposit refund at the corner store, a scheme that ended in the early 1980s. Children are not as free to roam unsupervised, they're busy with weekend sport and homework and tuition and music classes, and pocket money is not as scarce as it used to be.

Fifty and sixty years ago empty soft drink bottles worth 5 cents for small or 10 cents for big were hard to find because most people, adults among them, who bought the full bottle kept the empty bottle, and while 10 cents is worth much less today there are many more bottles to be collected.

So, a month ago I decided to collect our household bottles, cans and cartons that would Return and Earn 10 cents, instead of putting them into our oversized recycling bin, and at the end of three weeks I had three big black plastic bags as full as a sack of potatoes. Glass beer bottles, PET soda water bottles, cans, and without counting I guessed a return of about $30, at which rate I'd have enough for a case of beer at the end of each month.

The purpose of the container-deposit scheme of my childhood had nothing to do with littering and environmental damage.

A case of beer was pertinent, because the case of beer I'd buy at Dan Murphy's every month or so, a mid-strength craft beer called Little Bling, had increased in price by $5 or $6 a case in the week the NSW container-deposit scheme was introduced in December. That's much more than the $2.40 cost of a case of 24 bottles with a Return and Earn 10 cents a bottle, and so I stopped buying it. First, I felt cheated, and second, the beer was suddenly too expensive.

Now, when I open a bottle or a can I hear the beverage industry whisper "ffft, I told you so". It argued vehemently against a container-deposit scheme, and one of its many arguments was that the cost of a case of beer would increase by up to $4. The group of environmental groups that banded together as the Boomerang Alliance to push for the scheme argued that the wholesale cost of a drink container would increase by just half of 1 cent, and the green alliance was not just wrong, it was very wrong.

The beverage industry argued also that scavengers would create a bigger litter problem as they rummaged in bins for bottles and cans, that the environment would be damaged by vehicles travelling to and from Return and Earn depots, that it was unfair because there was no deposit scheme for cigarette butts, bus and train tickets and takeaway-food wrapping.

Cigarette butts are a dying problem, bus and train tickets are a thing of the past, but burger and other takeaway wrappings and single-use plastics continue to be an environmental blight. The prospect of a packaging-deposit scheme of 1 cent a gram would be interesting, although I fear not feasible. Which is a pity, because I am always troubled by the amount of packaging that goes with, say, a Maccas burger.

The purpose of the container-deposit scheme of my childhood had nothing to do with littering and environmental damage. Its purpose was to encourage the return of bottles so they could be refilled, and because the deposit was relatively more substantial then the scheme would have had close to a 100 per cent return rate.

While the current scheme will reduce litter, it seems to me that the cost to the environment of producing then hopefully recycling single-use bottles must be substantial. Might the next step be for government to encourage a return to refillable bottles and other containers, with a higher deposit to ensure a high proportion are returned?

So, one mid morning this week I loaded the three bulging bags of cans and bottles into the car and drove to the Return and Earn depot at the Newcastle International Hockey Centre at Broadmeadow. The only other redeemer there, a fellow in his 60s who was driving a late-model hatch, told me that family members saved their bottles and cans for him and he'd pocketed about $50 over four visits. Better than a kick in the cods, he said. After feeding my bottles and cans into their tubes I had $15.10 in Woolworths vouchers. That's $5 a week, and if I rely on that to buy beer it will be a long time between drinks. Which might not be a bad thing for me and the environment.

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