Scotland's deposit return scheme for bottles and cans could prompt thousands of small firms to stop selling their products here – Alex Cole-Hamilton

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In 2014, SNP ministers confidently assured the world they could set up an independent Scotland in just 18 months.

Presumably, that would include the establishment of a welfare state, military, global embassies and trade missions. It was an ambitious timetable. Fast forward to now and those same ministers can’t even establish a recycling system.

Deposit return schemes (DRS) charge customers a small amount for drinks containers, which can be reclaimed when they are returned. They operate in over 45 countries and work to great effect. Done well, they can massively reduce waste and carbon emissions. It’s why the Scottish Liberal Democrats were one of the first parties to suggest Scotland adopt one. The SNP/Green government has been working on a scheme for years but, just months before it goes live, it’s falling apart.

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Last week, Green minister, Lorna Slater announced 90 per cent of all drinks products on the shelves had been registered with the scheme. But look below the headline and you’ll see that only 664 of an expected 4,500 producers have signed up. The mega producers, responsible for the lion’s share of drinks, have joined but micro-producers, who offer most of the market’s variety, have not. The government’s failure to help small and independent producers to sign-up means many are being punished, and jobs are on the line.

The same is true of many retailers. St Andrew’s Wine Company is a small, independent retailer which offers interesting and less well-known brands. Their owner Peter took to social media last week to explain that if DRS goes ahead as planned, three-quarters of his stock will disappear. All he’ll have left to sell are the big brands readily available in supermarkets. He isn’t alone. Many suppliers of artisanal or ‘off the beaten track’ products could be left with nothing to sell.

Things are so bad many smaller brands are actively considering pulling out of Scotland. But not just the smaller brands, even Innis and Gunn has chosen not to join the scheme. That means that come summer, one of Scotland’s brewing success stories, could be available on shelves worldwide, but not Scotland.

There are many reasons for the lack of sign-ups. Despite having years to get it right, much of the scheme’s detail hasn’t been finalised, leaving producers uncertain what they’d be committing to. There are also huge problems with scale. Producers will be required to put a barcode on labels that didn’t previously require one, so small businesses producing just a few thousand units will be financially punished by the outlay they’ll be forced to commit to.

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When it works, DRS is an important part of our global fight against waste and the climate emergency. But the pig’s ear the SNP/Green government is making of this risks damaging the Scottish economy and undermining public confidence in the scheme. Scottish Liberal Democrats would pause the rollout, listen to small producers, and make the changes that support them to sign-up. For this scheme to have any chance of working, we need to bring businesses with us.

Green party minister Lorna Slater's deposit return scheme is an embarrassing shambles (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)Green party minister Lorna Slater's deposit return scheme is an embarrassing shambles (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Green party minister Lorna Slater's deposit return scheme is an embarrassing shambles (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

For a government that planned to establish an independent nation in just 18 months, and a Green party which signed the Bute House agreement with DRS as a red line, this shambles is hugely embarrassing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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