Infinitum discusses how the deposit-return scheme helping achieve 100% collection and recycling of non-refillable plastics and beverage cans
Since 1999, Infinitum has owned and operated the plastic bottle deposit scheme in Norway. Infinitum’s goal is 100% collection and recycling of non-refillable plastic bottles and beverage cans. The goal is not a financial profit, but to ensure an efficient, future-oriented and environmentally friendly operation of the deposit scheme.
Norway has had a deposit system for more than 100 years. Infinitum was established due to the environmental tax, and due to the fact that the industry wanted non-refillable bottles. Non refillable bottles gave the industry greater opportunity in design and volume. When Infinitum was established, it was on refillable bottles only. Between 1996 and 2012 the company Rentpack operated the refillable system.
Norway’s politicians decided that non-refillable bottles and cans should carry an environmental tax due to a potential environmental waste problem. They informed all producers that this ‘is an environmental tax on the non-refillable drinking bottles and beverage cans. It is up to you to solve this issue’. The point is that it was the industry which founded the deposit scheme system, not the politicians, making Norway’s deposit system a 100% producer responsibility.
In other countries, it was the politicians which initiated the deposit scheme systems, not the industry, so the industry feels forced into it, and therefore less positive about it.
In Norway, the environmental tax was therefore a smart and successful political decision that made the industry take the responsibility. The deal is, that the environmental tax decreases along with the collection rate.
Infinitum’s deposit-return system is a partnership between those who produce, those who import and those who sell beverages. Cans and plastic bottles can be returned at around 15,000 stores, kiosks and petrol stations at about 3,700 reverse vending machines (RVMs). Everyone who sells cans or bottles is committed to accepting return-deposit empties, even if they do not have an RVM. In 2014, the business changed its name from Norsk Resirk to Infinitum – inspired by the endless number of times one can recycle bottles and cans in the deposit scheme. This is of great importance to Infinitum and to the environment.
“In 2016, we informed people how much energy gets lost if you throw plastic in the residual waste, a bottle or can, instead of returning it. The commercials created a lot of excitement. We keep getting questions about figures and calculations,” says Randi H. Varberg, Director of Information and Market at Infinitum.
An energy bomb
An empty bottle is full of energy. The money you get back when you return a bottle is not worth as much now as it once was to people. Consequently, Infinitum wants to communicate the other advantages of the deposit system. If you throw away an empty bottle or can in the residual waste, energy is lost. An empty bottle of average size has an energy potential of about 1 kWh, while an empty can has around 0.46 kWh. This is the same amount of energy you would need to run an outboard engine for four minutes, a tennis ball machine for over an hour, or use an electric razor for 25 hours.
Infinitum presented historic results in 2016. Norwegians have long been world champions in the deposit-return scheme, and in 2017 we broke an historic record by returning more than one billion bottles and cans in the plastic deposit-return scheme. That was an incredible achievement.
In addition, and for the first time, Norwegians stated that consideration for the environment is the most important reason for their returns to the deposit system. Surveys show that energy and the environment are just as important as the money they get back at the checkout. This is fantastic proof that we have managed to show Norwegians that there is a major environmental gain in participating in the plastic deposit-return scheme. Returning more empties means that fewer Norwegian plastic bottles and cans are deposited in Nature and in the sea. It also means that the need for virgin plastic and aluminium is reduced.
If everyone returns all bottles, and we sell them for high-quality recycling, we can reduce the production of virgin plastic from 22,000 to 2,200 tonnes per year. That says something about the potential of the deposit-return scheme. It may also explain why each month we receive visits from delegations covering all corners of the world; these visits educate them about the Norwegian deposit-return scheme.
The founding of a revolutionary plastic deposit scheme
Established in 1996, the deposit scheme originally focused on returning cans only. The scheme centred upon payment from producers to deposit points at retail outlets. In 1999, the scheme broadened to encompass non-refillable polyethylene terephthalate (Nr PET) deposits. By 2012, there was a shift from non-refillable PET to refillable PET, increasing the volume of distributions fivefold. As the deposit scheme expanded – and with a high degree of documented collection from the schemes conception – three sorting plants were built in 2013; approximately 87-88% was collected for both PETs and cans through vending machines, and 10% from energy recovery from household waste.
Upon manufacturers placing a product on the market, they receive an invoice from Infinitum for the deposit value of the product and an extended producer responsibility (EPR) fee, which currently stands at 0.00 NOK for cans and 0.18 NOK for PET. Producers invoice the fee as a part of the product price, and the deposit as an additional line on the invoice to the buyer. Consumers pay for the deposit when they buy the product. In Norway, this deposit is without VAT. Upon the consumer returning their empty products, they will get a refund from the store.
Every 14 days we download the registration from the RVMs and pay the store the amount registered. In addition to 3,700 shops with RVMs, Infinitum has around 11,000 selling points, organisations, and other locations where empties are collected.
As a result, people can believe that setting up a deposit system is a cost; Infinitum, however, proposes that it is an investment. We can prove that the deposit system has higher collection rates by fare, with much higher recycling yield to the lowest cost per unit. Plastics are very efficient materials, and therefore banning or abolishing all plastic is not the solution. Furthermore, glass bottles demand 34 times more energy in production than plastic. We should stop the use of plastics if they are found in Nature, instead resuming plastic use when a cost-efficient collection and recycling system can be established.
Powering deposit-return schemes
The deposit-return scheme utilises standard sorting equipment for the respective materials – Eddi Current for sorting aluminium, and Titech IR for sorting PET qualities. The total investment, including sorting plants, stands at 85,000,000 NOK (~£7,840,000). Whilst shops invest in the RVMs, Infinitum covers the investment, service and operation and production capacity currently stands at 50,000 tonnes annually.
Infinitum provides official regulation, environmental fees for littering and functions as a source of knowledge, both on what is collected – according to individual stock keeping units (SKU) – and to lifecycle assessment (LCA) on the use of the material. Infinitum uses statistical data to build efficiency at an administrative and operational level, whilst engaging in extended collaboration in the interests of collection and recycling. All participants get paid for their service. The deposit system is a 100% earnings price ratio (EPR) system, covering all costs through the value chain.
Extending upon the current scheme, Infinitum also facilitates the collection and payment of deposits from internet deliveries in efforts to ensure that empties are retrieved from consumers who don’t visit shops in person. In collaboration with Kolonial.no, Infinitum established a system to perform collections directly from households.
Building on success
In 2017, a number of significant advances were made. Infinitum oversaw:
- The introduction of a material fee and LCA;
- New IT solutions for monitoring the value chain;
- Traceability measures in the logistic chain, further reducing cost;
- Changes to transport packaging, increasing transport efficiency and material quality;
- Improved collection rates;
- Improved yields in the recycling process of collected material; and
- Reduced cost per unit sold to consumers.
In 2018, Infinitum will reduce the cost per unit sold to the consumer, striving to reduce the EPR cost for plastic bottles to 0.15 NOK, whilst sustaining 0.00 NOK for aluminium cans. In addition, we aim to increase the collection rate through the RVM and improve the yield of collected material in the plastic recycling process. Our long-term aim is to achieve 100% collection rates and to introduce an innovative form for drink containers in the deposit system, as well as establishing a PET recycling plant in Norway.