LANDMARK GLOBAL REPORT: THE WORLD IS AWASH WITH DRINKS CONTAINER WASTAGE BUT THE DATA SHOWS THE SOLUTION
29 April 2021
Reloop  today published What We Waste, a report drawing on data  from 93 countries to establish the decline in refillable drinks containers over the past 20 years, and the extent to which refillables and deposit return systems can reduce the number of glass bottles, PET plastic bottles and metal cans wasted, i.e. littered in towns, cities and wild spaces, lost into rivers and oceans, landfilled, or incinerated.
Drinks container sales have doubled between 1999 and 2019, across the countries Reloop has data for. Over that same period, the proportion sold in PET plastic has more than doubled, from 17% to 41%. The 10 countries with the highest usage of refillables in 2019 have experienced a sharp decline in refillable market share over the previous 20 years, down from 60% to 29% over that period.
Overall, the largest contributor to these numbers is mainland China, driven by population size and a stronger than average refillable sector, but the drop in refillable market share there was also sharper than the average, declining from 52% in 1999 to 22% in 2019.
The report also gives for the first time a comprehensive understanding of the impact of deposit return systems on drinks container wastage. Like refillables, deposit return systems rely on consumers paying a small deposit which is refunded in full when the can or bottle is returned. Unlike refillables, these systems collect for recycling rather than reuse, and typically operate at a national or state/provincial level, although many countries in this dataset use the same collection infrastructure for both systems.
The data shows the positive effect the adoption of deposits can have. In 2015, before Lithuania introduced deposit return, 113 drinks containers were wasted per capita, more than one every three days per person. 2017 was the first full year of the system being in operation, and that year’s data shows that wastage had fallen sharply to just 14, barely one a month.
Reloop is also able to estimate the effect of changes to refillable market share in a given country, and to see the effect of changing national recycling rates on wastage, especially in countries where no such data is publicly available.
For example, Brazil had a refillable rate of 24.2% in 2019. If instead it had achieved the same refillable rate as neighbouring Colombia, at 53.9%, sales of single-use drinks containers in Brazil would have fallen from 35.9 billion to 23.2 billion that year.
This report establishes for the first time the scale of wastage across a smaller subset of countries where we have recycling data , and the variation is striking. Germany, where refillables retained a 55% market share in 2017, and where most other drinks are covered by deposit return, wasted just 10 containers per person that year. At the other end of the spectrum within Europe, Hungary, with just a 14.7% refillable market share and no deposit return system, wasted 186 containers per person that year. The United States is in a league of its own, wasting 422 containers per person.
Reloop can also estimate what the effect would be of adopting a deposit return system with return rates equivalent to the median rates achieved by national systems of this sort. Those median return rates are 91% for PET bottles, 89% for cans, and 87% for glass, significantly higher than the rates achieved by typical municipal waste systems. For example, if Greece introduced this type of deposit system, annual wastage of PET bottles would decrease from 1.6 billion to just 207 million, can wastage would fall by 233 million, and glass wastage would fall by 122 million. That would represent a reduction in wastage per capita from 184 per capita to just 29.
The more detailed information available in Europe and North America makes it clear that the best-performing countries have both a 25%+ refillable market and a deposit return system. Those countries generate far less wastage, on average, than those countries with lower refill usage and no deposit return system. That latter group waste almost seven times as many drinks containers per person.
Reducing wastage also reduces emissions, a key factor ahead of the COP26 climate conference later this year in Glasgow, Scotland. Refilling a glass bottle a second time cuts climate impact by 40% , and industry estimates that recycling an aluminium can is 92% more efficient than using virgin materials .
Clarissa Morawski, CEO and co-founder of Reloop, said:
“The two best available solutions to this problem are extremely clear. Both use a small financial incentive – a deposit – to encourage consumers to return empties, either for refill or for deposit return systems which collect high-quality single-material recycling. Both approaches reduce wastage substantially, so fewer containers end up littered in our environment, landfilled or incinerated. They reduce clean-up costs for local government, they promote jobs in the circular economy, and they reduce carbon emissions.
“From a policy perspective, for those territories wasting the most currently, it may make sense in one place to first bring in measures to support refillable markets, or it may be more sensible to start work on a deposit return system. Certainly a deposit return system will set the system conditions for the introduction of a refillable system at a later stage. From a consumer perspective, the experience is the same. If you return an empty bottle, you get your money back, and you know that, whether the next step is refill or recycling, it’s not being wasted and its impact on the environment is markedly lower.”
Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director for Changing Markets , said:
“These findings lay bare the international shift to single-use cans and bottles over the past 20 years, and show the consequences of consistent lobbying efforts by beverage giants. They have sought to dismantle refill systems, whilst also blocking proven solutions like deposit return. At the same time these big companies have flooded the market with single-use plastic bottles and cans. This data shows the stark price we are paying for these tactics, and for the first time we can estimate the devastating volume of bottles and cans choking the planet with trash.
“The evidence is clear: deposit return systems and strong refillable markets are effective at reducing drinks container pollution. These are widely-used measures, and the case for them must no longer be ignored. Policy-makers need to stand their ground against industry lobbying and move quickly to address this deepening pollution crisis. The sooner governments and regulators act to protect refillable markets and introduce deposit return the better, and the sooner we can start to stem this tide of waste.”
Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of Break Free from Plastic , said:
“This report confirms that disposable plastics are crowding out markets for refillables all over the world, and as a consequence the planet is drowning in plastic waste. Governments must not allow the disposable economy and the plastic pollution associated with it to completely take over our societies, and they must compel corporations to re-invest in refill systems that have been proven to work in the past, supported by effective deposit return systems.”
“The future is not disposable and plastic pollution is not inevitable. In countries like mainland China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines, where there is still a significant market share for refillables, governments must provide the right policy signals not only to protect what’s left of the refillable sector but to expand and bring it back to a position of dominance. Companies that produce ever-increasing amounts of plastic pollution should be held accountable, while systems that avoid plastic waste must be encouraged and strongly supported. This is the kind of direction required to reverse the plastic pollution crisis and avert catastrophic climate change.”
Henriette Schneider, Project Manager Circular Economy for Deutsche Umwelthilfe , said:
“In the coming years, many EU member states will need to implement deposit return for single-use cans and bottles in order to reduce marine litter and promote high-quality recycling. Refillables rely on the same take-back infrastructure to a great extent, and can easily be scaled up. Both tools reduce waste at source and play a key role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Policy-makers need to protect and expand the market share of refillables, by setting ambitious targets and providing financial incentives. Austria is leading the way and will invest €110 million in take-back and refill infrastructure.”
- Reloop is an international non-profit organisation that brings together industry, government and NGOs into a broad network that seeks to bring about positive change at all levels of resource and waste policy.
- The datasets used include proprietary sales information purchased from GlobalData, which Reloop is unable to publish directly: however, publication of information which combines that data with other datasets, e.g. recycling rates, is permitted. The sales data available covers 93 countries, including all G20 countries and more than 80% of the world’s population, although recycling data is only available for a subset of 34 countries, including America, Canada, most of Europe, plus PET-only information for some Asian countries. More information about GlobalData is available here: https://www.globaldata.com/
- We have recycling data covering some or all of PET, glass and cans for North America, 24 EU member states (excluding Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta), Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Philippines, South Africa Switzerland, Thailand, the UK and Vietnam.
- See p38 here: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/zwe_reloop_report_reusable-vs-single-use-packaging-a-review-of-environmental-impact_en.pdf.pdf_v2.pdf
- See: https://www.aluminum.org/sustainability/aluminum-recycling
- The Changing Markets Foundation was formed to accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets. Working in partnership with NGOs, other foundations and research organisations we are keen to explore effective solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.
- Break Free from Plastic (BFFP) is a global movement of more than 2,000 organizations worldwide that have come together to push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.
- Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany) was founded in 1975. It is a non-governmental environmental and consumer protection organisation in Germany.