Recycling technology company Polytag and Ocado Retail have announced a world-first trial to test the viability of a Digital Deposit Return Scheme (DDRS) in the UK.
The trial will test the feasibility of a key component of a DDRS – the application of ‘unique-every-time’ QR codes to packaging, which will be applied to Ocado Retail’s recyclable two-pint and four-pint milk bottles, made from at least 30% recycled material, over the course of the next 12 weeks.
This will enable households to scan their discarded packaging from home before recycling it, and crucially, redeem their deposit through an intuitive mobile app, when legislation is finally enforced. Until now, it has only been possible to print ‘unique-every-time’ QR codes using digital label printing, at significantly reduced speeds and far higher costs.
Upon scanning the QR codes, consumers will also receive instructions and a clear call-to-action for shoppers, further simplifying the recycling process.
English, Welsh and Northern Irish governments are expected to announce the response to the DRS consultation in the coming months, with increasing pressure on the devolved administrations to consider a complementary digital solution.
This follows widespread criticism of the Scottish DRS rollout. Due to go live in August 2023, the scheme, which is deploying the reverse vending machine (RVM) model, resulted in a legal challenge, welcomed by the Scottish Grocers’ Federation, who argued the costs were unfairly high for smaller retailers. On 7 November, it was announced the scheme would be scaled back amid similar concerns.
A recent report from the independent environmental consultancy, Resource Futures, estimated that an all-in DDRS would result in cost savings of £3.4bn over an 11 year period, compared to the RVM model, largely thanks to eliminating the need for the nationwide installation of reverse vending machines. A digital scheme is also likely to be less carbon-intensive, mainly due to not installing RVMs across the country and negating the need to drive to collection points.
Polytag’s QR code and app-based mobile phone technology is also built to meet GS1 standards, following its approval by GS1 UK earlier this year. This means recyclable goods can be tracked and traced through the circular economy, providing stakeholders with never-before-seen packaging lifecycle information, and opportunities to collaborate easily through the use of global, interoperable data standards.
Commenting on the trial, Alice Rackley, CEO, Polytag, said: “This world-first trial will have game-changing implications for recycling in this country. A successful trial, supported by the world’s largest online-only supermarket, Ocado Retail, will be a significant step towards the implementation of a DDRS in this country that will provide a much more convenient and environmentally friendly way for households to recover their deposits. Not only that, brands will be presented with radical new marketing tools and a wealth of data on how consumers are recycling their products.”
Additionally, the trial will provide brands and retailers with a direct-to-consumers marketing channel, on a national scale, enabling them to tell their sustainability stories to increasingly eco-conscious shoppers. Upon scanning the QR code, consumers access landing pages – built by Ocado Retail – to share customised campaigns and links out to relevant content and reward schemes.
Nadiya Catel-Arutyunova, Sustainability Policy Advisor at the BRC, said: “Retailers are keen to play their part in supporting the circular economy and boosting the rates of recycling in the UK. Initiatives like these, which aim to make recycling quick and easy for consumers, will be key to making such aims a reality. We’re looking forward to seeing the results of the trial, which will help businesses explore the concept of a digital DRS.”
Plastics resource efficiency & recycling charity, RECOUP’s Business and Project Development lead Anne Hitch said: “This unique initiative to collaborate with Ocado Retail and Polytag provides an innovative and effective way to communicate with citizens. RECOUP’s involvement in providing plastics recycling facts and evidence to support this project will continue with cutting the confusion about the recycling of plastics. RECOUP is excited about the future opportunities that this type of trial offers.”
Participants will be invited to take part in a survey at the start and the end of the trial, to track their recycling habits over the course of the 12 weeks and gain their thoughts on Ocado Retail’s overall sustainability strategy.
Laura Fernandez, Senior Packaging and Sustainability Manager at Ocado Retail Ltd, said: “As the world’s largest online supermarket, we champion the use of innovative technology as we strive to become the UK’s most sustainable grocery retailer. Polytag’s digital platform offers plenty of environmental and economic benefits for retailers and customers alike – it’s easy to use and when used at scale, could have a hugely positive impact on the nation’s deposit return scheme. We’re looking forward to seeing how our customers respond to the trial and how many would redeem their deposit at home.”
Polytag has also developed a UV tagging technology. UV tag readers, implemented in Material Recycling Facilities, identify items with UV tags applied to the packaging and / or to labels. This solution provides brands with never-seen-before data on packaging recycling updated in real-time to their account dashboard. This has recently undergone successful trials at Abergele’s Gofer Bulking Centre in North Wales.
The content of the landing pages and surveys was developed in workshops between the aforementioned stakeholders, and WRAP, RECOUP, Behaviour Change, British Retail Consortium and OPRL.
The printed label used during the trial was developed and supplied by European printing company Interket UK. The in-line coding of the unique-every-time QR code onto the label is completed by leading coding and marking specialists Xact.