Deposit fee on drink cans: A simple expansion from plastic bottles or a messy hassle for consumers?

Earlier this spring, the Dutch government imposed a deposit fee of € 0,15 on drink cans. The goal of this measure is to collect and recycle the approximately 2 billion cans that are sold over the counter every year and in this way preventing part of it from ending up in the environment. We find that while consumers overall support this policy in theory, they run into some practical problems that can inhibit them from returning the cans. It may even lead consumers to avoid cans (and the 15 cent extra costs that they do not intend to get back) and replace them with unrecyclable options.

Not too long ago there was an introduction of deposits on small plastic bottles, which led the number of littering bottles to decrease by more than 50%. As a result, it is expected that the impact of deposits on cans will be large as well.

But how do consumers feel about this change? Have they started making use of this deposit system? If so, how have they experienced it?

We brought it up in our Food Forum and had a discussion with 43 members from around the Netherlands.

Consumers are aware of this change and are generally positive about it

“Firstly, all participants were aware of this development with the exception of one. They have seen the campaigns and have read about it in the news. 

“There’s a lot of advertising on TV right now, so you can’t miss it.” Linda, 61

Most participants like the idea in theory. They want to see less trash on the street, and believe that such a system will encourage people to recycle.

“I think it is very good that there is a deposit on cans. This will hopefully prevent people from just throwing the cans everywhere.” Robert-Jan, 54

However, there are some practical concerns that have come up.

However they do have a few concerns

The biggest issue that participants have experienced is that cans are messier to keep than bottles. It is hard to empty them completely, and the (often sugary) remains in the can make a mess in the bag that they are kept in.

“I do think it’s dirty honestly, they get smelly and sticky.” Peter, 32

Some participants also express doubt whether 15 cents are enough motivation to put up with the mess these cans create at home.

“I do notice that people think 15 cents is too little or that they are not willing to go out of their way to store dirty cans.” Martijn, 43

Will consumers opt for bottles over cans when possible? Some seem to have made that switch already.

“I haven’t returned cans yet because I prefer to buy bottles now.” Tessa, 44

Finally there is some concern that supermarkets and other return points are not facilitating this increase in returns. A couple of participants complained about long queues at the supermarket points of return.  

“I went to the AH to turn in my bottles and there was a mega long line at the drop-off point! People with garbage bags full of bottles, small bottles and cans to turn in. And there was no end to it and in misery I just went home.” Cynthia, 52

Finally, the fact that dented cans may be rejected at the drop-off point is also a point of friction for consumers. 

“But in the supermarket, I’m told, it’s frustrating. It sticks, the cans often come back because they are not accepted because there is a dent in them.” Palmyre, 66

The reason for which cans must not be too damaged or dented is that the collection machine will not be able to read the barcode for the deposit. It is not related to the actual ‘recyclability’ of the can. Unlike glass bottles, aluminium cans are not reused but crushed, shredded, remelted and solidified again. Aluminium does not degrade during the recycling process, which means it can be repeatedly recycled.

What does this mean for the chance of success of this program?

From behavioural research we know that people need motivation, ability, and a prompt to encourage them to perform a specific behaviour. If the motivation is too low, or the barriers are too high, then chances are the behaviour will not take place.

In the long term, aluminium can recycling may need to become better facilitated for consumers, or pay more, to make the effort worth their while. For example, supermarkets can increase their capacity for returning bottles and cans, and perhaps accept cans that have been dented or are completely crushed. This will make it easier for consumers to collect their cans, store them in a smaller space and perhaps end up with less stickiness. What may happen otherwise is that consumers opt for bottles, or worse packaging with mixed materials that are much more difficult to recycle.

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Contact us to find out more about the results, or how we can tailor consumer insights to your product or company. 

We believe that understanding consumers is key to making the food system more sustainable. Successful innovation and impactful communication require a solid foundation of consumer insight. 

We are the insights partner of choice for food companies and non-profits  that aim to have a positive impact on society and our planet. Together we empower consumers to make food choices that are good for them as well as for the planet.

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