“We can be in no doubt that plastic is wreaking havoc on our marine environment – killing dolphins, choking turtles and degrading our most precious habitats. It is absolutely vital we act now to tackle this threat and curb the millions of plastic bottles a day that go unrecycled,” said British Environment Secretary Michael Gove, about a new bid to make shoppers in England start paying a refundable deposit for single-use drink containers.
Welcome to the future, replied Sweden – Scandinavia in the 1980s called and said hi.
A waste bin with a separate container for recycling cans and bottles. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT
In Sweden, people trudging to the supermarket with their plastic bags full of cans and bottles is a common sight. They insert them into large machines, shiftily look around before ignoring the option of donating the money to charity, press the other button to collect a receipt and take it to the till where it gets refunded.
Countries such as Germany, Denmark and Norway also operate similar schemes.
In Sweden, the deposit on the bottles and cans is called pant and the process described above is even a verb, panta, which usually refers to the process of putting bottles in the supermarket's magic machines. More generally, panta means to hand something in and get money in return (such as for example in a pawnshop).
Pant machines at a Swedish supermarket. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
Sweden recycled 84.9 percent of its aluminium cans and PET bottles via the pant system in 2016. That is, in other words, a total of 1.8 billion cans and bottles – or on average 177 per person in just one year.
That doesn't even include containers thrown out via the regular system for recycling refuse.
By contrast, the estimated proportion of plastic bottles recycled in the UK is 50 percent.
Sweden first introduced pant on aluminium cans in 1984. Today, the deposit for cans and small bottles is 1 krona and 2 kronor for large bottles (approximately £0.09-0.17 or $0.12-0.24).
This symbol means the cans are pant-able. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
The system is run by Returpack Svenska AB, a company privately owned by brewery and grocery organizations Sveriges Bryggerier, Livsmedelshandlarna and Svensk Dagligvaruhandel.
After inserted into the pant machine, the recycled bottles and cans get transported to their hub in Norrköping, central Sweden, where 35,000 tonnes of material is recycled and turned into new bottles every year.
The government-set target is to recycle 90 percent of all cans and bottles. In 2016 the figure stood at 86.2 percent of cans and 82.5 percent of PET bottles. Returpack even launched a campaign in the early 2000s tormenting consumers with annoingly catchy versions of famous tunes to encourage them to “panta more”.
Bonus video. The campaign also featured this performance by Swedish rockers The Ark: