A Scandinavian deposit-based system for recycling bottles is thought likely to be adopted in the UK.
Advisers to government say the schemes have massively reduced plastic litter in the environment and seas.
And a ministerial delegation has been to Norway to see if the UK should copy an industry-led scheme that recycles 97% of bottles.
In the UK, figures show that only around half of all plastic bottles get recycled.
Norway claims to offer the most cost-efficient way of tackling plastic litter.
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The Norwegian government decided the best method would be to put a tax on every bottle that’s not recycled – then leave the operating details of the scheme up to business.
It works like this: The consumer pays a deposit on every bottle – the equivalent of 10p to 25p depending on size.
They return it empty and post it into a machine which reads the barcode and produces a coupon for the deposit.
If the careless consumer has left liquid in the bottle, the machine eats it anyway – but hands the deposit to the shopkeeper who’ll need to empty the bottle.
Similar schemes are in operation in other Nordic nations, Germany, and some states in the US and Canada.
The managers of the Norway operation say it could easily be applied to the UK.
In Norway, the deposit-return machine accepts only two types of plastic bottle, with approved labels and even approved glue to fix the labels.
This allows the labels to be stripped easily, and simplifies recycling.
In the UK, roadside collection of plastic bottles in Britain are bedevilled by contamination from rogue rubbish being put in the recycling container.
Kjell Olav Maldum, chief executive of Infinitum which runs the Norway bottle scheme, told BBC News: “There are other recycling schemes, but we believe ours is the most cost-efficient.
“We think it could be copied in the UK – or anywhere.
“Our principle is that if drinks firms can get bottles to shops to sell their products, they can also collect those same bottles.”
Scotland has already committed to a deposit return scheme, without details so far.
But politicians in Westminster have been more cautious amid lobbying by drinks manufacturers and fears from small shops about the administrative burden.
In Norway, small shopkeepers are said to generally favour the deposit return system. They get paid a small fee for each bottle, and are also said to benefit from increased footfall from people returning bottles.
Sajana Pariyar, who works at the Joker minimarket in central Oslo told me: “It’s a good thing. People return the bottle and with the money they get from it they buy things from us.
“It increases the number of people in our shops. It’s good for business.”
When we visited her store, a homeless man patiently fed a sack-full of bottles and cans into the mouth of the machine. He’d collected the containers from a nearby office, and raised £5 in the process.
But even in recycling-conscious Norway, some people still transgress. The worst offenders are youngsters quaffing energy drinks on the run to school.
So some schools have now installed bottle collecting racks at the school gates to avoid plastic bottles going into general rubbish bins.
The most virtuous consumers are older beer drinkers who can stash their cans at home before returning them later.
Just 3% of Norway’s plastic bottles elude the deposit return scheme, but even so the absolute numbers are high.
Terje Skovly works at a municipal recycling scheme, ROAF, which collects the bins from 70,000 homes on the outskirts of Oslo.
At his plant – a 3-D maze of conveyors and ramps – a steady stream of plastic bottles is isolated from other waste by infrared recognition.
These bottles have been mixed with other waste during collection so they can’t be used again for food grade packaging. They get down-graded into plastic furniture instead.
“I get angry when I see that,” he told me as he glared at the bottle conveyor below us. “Why are people so lazy that they can’t be bothered to recycle a bottle? We should increase the deposit to 50p on a large bottle.”
What was the value in lost deposits? I asked.
He made a rough calculation… just under a million dollars. A year.
With that amount of cash swilling around the scheme in spare change, it’s little wonder that representatives of other nations are considering the advantages of going Norwegian.
But even Norway’s ultra-efficient recycling system can’t compete with virgin plastic on cost.
The problem, the recyclers say, is that the ingredients of plastic – oil and gas – are simply too cheap.
The cost of each bottle is subsidised by a few pence by the manufacturer. This ultimately gets passed to the consumer.
The operators of the scheme argue that it’s more appropriate for people buying drinks to pay for them to be recycled, rather than have taxpayers foot the bill for cleaning up litter on beaches.
The UK government’s working party studying plastic waste will mention Norway as an example of a system working well.
Members are also intrigued by the example of Lithuania, which is said to have achieved a 93% return rate in just three years.
Samantha Harding, from the countryside group CPRE, has been campaigning against plastic litter for more than a decade.
She told BBC News: “It frustrates me when people say ‘oh, they only recycle because they’re Scandinavian… in the UK we’re different.’
“Well, they’re doing it in Germany too – and states in the US and Canada. Are they all the same, so are we different from all of them?
“The key is to get an economic incentive – put a deposit on the bottle and most people won’t throw money away.”
She applauded the Norwegian system of putting racks round bins in public places for discarded plastic bottles.
“People say they don’t want to see homeless people rummaging through bins to get the deposit back on bottles… why don’t we make it easy for them?”
Ms Harding said one great advantage of deposit return schemes is that it obliges each part of the plastic chain to change their behaviour – from product concept to design; to manufacture; transport; use; and finally disposal.
“This is great because we’ve seen big firms campaigning against good schemes because it forced them to take more responsibility. We’re in a crisis now – there’s no room for that sort of thing,” she said.
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