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Container return scheme: An option for reducing litter and waste to landfill

An estimated 2.3 billion glass, plastic, aluminium, paperboard and other single use drink containers are consumed each year in New Zealand. Many end up in landfills or littering streets, streams, beaches and other public spaces. The Government is investigating a container return scheme as one way of addressing the issue.

How container return schemes usually operate

Consumers pay a deposit on a beverage container which is included in the price of purchase. They can get that deposit refunded if they return the empty container to a designated drop-off point. The purpose of the refund is to increase recycling rates by giving consumers an incentive to return and recycle beverage containers.

Container return schemes are operating in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, the USA and Europe. 

Issues and options that are being considered in the investigation of a New Zealand container return scheme design

The following issues and options are being considered: 

  • The types of bottles/containers included within the scheme (eg, glass, plastic, aluminium, liquid paper board).
  • At what level the deposit should be set.
  • How to ensure that returning containers to a scheme drop-off point is sufficiently easy and convenient for the public.
  • Whether the scheme has recycling-rate targets it is required to meet.
  • Who governs and manages the scheme.
  • What the costs of operating a scheme are.
  • How a container return scheme operates alongside council-run kerbside collection systems.

Groups involved in the project

  • Auckland and Marlborough councils jointly proposed the scheme. Staff are on the project team.
  • Scheme Design Working Group –made up of industry (eg, beverage manufacturers, retailers, recyclers) and community representatives. 
  • Technical Advisory Group – made up of people with financial, product stewardship and beverage industry expertise. The group’s role is to review progress and provide advice on design issues.
  • The Ministry – we provided funding for the project via the Waste Minimisation Fund. Our staff attend project meetings and provide support and advice to Minister Sage. 

Terms of reference for the project

The terms of reference include the following: 


  • Change the way New Zealand values beverage containers that will see increased recycling and new opportunities for refilling.
  • Reduce the volume of plastics and other container litter currently ending up in our streams, marine environment, public spaces and landfills.
  • Give effect to circular economy outcomes and any future priority product guidelines.

Guiding principles

  • Make it easier and convenient to return containers across New Zealand.
  • Design a solution that is cost effective and efficient.
  • Improve quality and marketability of recyclables and assess impact of design on current kerbside and other collection and processing systems.
  • Create new opportunities for employment, community participation and fund-raising for charities and social enterprises.

In addition, the design is expected to consider opportunities to:

  • use technology and innovations to optimise performance of the container return scheme
  • support greater investment in re-manufacturing and regional development
  • align objectives with the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Ao Māori
  • mitigate climate change.

Next steps for the project

  • A report from the scheme Design Working Group, along with an accompanying report from the Technical Advisory Group, is due to be completed within the next few months. In turn, these reports will need to be considered by Ministers later this year. 
  • The role of the Ministry for the Environment will be to support Ministers in considering the recommendations, issues and options raised in these reports and to make decisions about next steps. For instance, Ministers may opt to release a proposed scheme for broader public consultation.
  • If a decision is made to implement a container return scheme in New Zealand, it is estimated it would take until close to 2023 to put in place the regulatory framework, stand up the organisational arrangements, undertake procurement, and ultimately have a scheme up and operational. 

Find out more

Further information on the Design Working Group co-design process: Container return scheme portal [Marlborough District Council website] 

Media release from Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage: Work underway for beverage container return scheme [Beehive website]