The cost of waste disposal has
doubled in some pubs with the
move to non-returnable bottles.
Kelly Smith investigates ethical
and cost-effective solutions
The concept of the returnable bottle seems so virtuous in today's throw-away society. What used to be a standard, sustainable container for beer, soft drinks and cider worked reasonably well - perhaps better for pubs, as returning them released a deposit and kept waste to a minimum.
Now, with drinks firms phasing them out in favour of less labour-intensive non-returnable versions, and growing amounts of imported beer, wine, soft drinks and ready-to-drink (RTD) brands, licensees are being left with the environmental burden of disposing of about 600,000 tonnes of glass every year. The estimated value of these empties is £90m - yet up to two-thirds are ending up in landfill sites.
In March, Britvic became the last major player to scrap returnable bottles. From its point of view, recycling is greener than returning: by eliminating the complex process of collecting, washing and refilling bottles,
its lorries will clock up 452,000 fewer miles every year.
It's also a marketing issue. In Britvic's quest for a better-looking bottle, shabby old returnables don't quite cut it. The company has, however, committed to reducing packaging waste as part of the government-funded
Waste Reduction Action Programme (Wrap).
The market may have moved on, but the returnable-versus-non-returnable bottle argument has never been more relevant, as the question of which is more cost effective and eco-friendly still lingers. Wrap glass technology manager Andy Dawe agrees. "There's an interesting debate as to which format is more carbon efficient," he says.
Most cost-effective solutions
"But there's no doubt the glass industry is looking for waste glass to use in its furnaces, even if it has been collected as 'mixed'. Technology is being used to separate it."
Glass recycling in the licensed trade increased from 90,000 tonnes in 2005 to 160,000 in 2006, reports Dawe. And Wrap is currently running a number of collection trials to find the most cost effective, convenient solutions for pubs and other outlets.
Britvic on-premises business unit director Paul Linthwaite believes the non-returnable bottle (NRB) is more convenient for pubs, mainly in relation to handling and storage. "When we spoke to licensees before the move, 70% said they preferred NRBs because returning bottles was an extra task," he says. "We understand it will become more difficult for some. But hopefully it will give them a reason to push their local authorities harder for
better recycling services."
Barbara Haigh, who runs the Grapes in
London's Limehouse, is struggling to dispose ethically of three bags filled with glass every day. Along with the rest of her rubbish, the bags are collected six times a week, doubling her waste bill.
"For me, returnable bottles were the greatest thing imaginable. Britvic withdrawing its service has been great for my storage space, but has created a problem as Tower Hamlets Council, in my experience, is next to useless when it comes to recycling," says the Punch host.
Eventually, Haigh was offered a type of household collection. "Once a week is just not enough - I don't have the space to let it build up," she says. And the fact that the pub's bin area is locked presents another pitfall. "Commercial contractors make collections here between about 5am and 6am - but contrary
to popular belief, licensees don't work 24 hours a day. And the neighbours would complain bitterly about the noise.
Bottle bank provision
"Other pubs, as well as residents, are crying out for somewhere to recycle. I have asked the council to provide us with a bottle-bank in the park opposite. But it just won't agree to do it."
In neighbouring Southwark, 90 licensed premises are taking advantage of a council recycling scheme offering collections "as frequently as required" - from as little as £1.47 for a 240-litre bin.
While some local authorities have found a way of setting up viable trade-waste schemes, the majority still don't have adequate resources. The general feeling is that businesses have been side-lined in the Government's race to meet household targets.
Julie Freeman, licensee of the Black Horse in Thurnham, Kent, is desperate to recycle. But her local authority, Maidstone Borough Council, does not yet provide a service for pubs. "I've had no luck with the council," she says. "They give households separate bins for glass, but a lot more glass waste is produced commercially. No matter how much we pay in business rates, the council is still unwilling to provide us with any."
Emphasis on residential waste
Maidstone Borough Council's waste collection officer David Campbell-Lenaghan says his hands are tied. "We get approached by many licensees, particularly in the rural areas. But all the emphasis is on residential waste, which amounts to much less than that produced by businesses. We are lobbying central Government on this issue, but pressure needs to come from the pub industry as well as the local authorities."
Meanwhile, a scheme has been set up to improve regional glass-collection services in the north. The aptly named "Have you got the bottle?" campaign, launched by Recycling Action Yorkshire (Ray), Renew Tees Valley, Envirolink Northwest and Wrap, has pulled together 20 local waste collectors to meet the demands of pubs and clubs in the area. No bottle sorting is needed: all colours of glass usually go into one bin, which is collected for processing.
Contact details for the companies, as well as advice on potential problems such as noise and restricted space, can be found at www.pubrecycling.org.uk.
By recycling glass in this way, pubs can save on waste costs (depending on local authority rates). And with landfill taxes set to rise next April, when businesses will have to pay 20% more to have their bins emptied, the green option will become even cheaper.
3B Waste Solutions sales manager Simon Hall has been promoting the service in the Leeds area. "The willingness to recycle does exist. We've been collecting as much as 10.5 tonnes of glass from Harrogate town centre in a single trip," he says.
Great business sense
Non-returnable bottles make great business sense for the Sweet Green Tavern in Bolton, Lancashire. Not only has licensee Kevin Banks offset his refuse costs by recycling, he has also sold more cask ale since clearing away crates of returnable Britvic and Newcastle Brown Ale bottles that were filling his storage space.
"The tiny backyard beside the cellar-drop used to be chock-a-block with crates; now it's much cleaner and tidier and there's room for more barrelage, which sells really well," says Banks. He pays £60 a month for local recycler Greenhope - a company signed up to "Have you got the bottle?" - to empty three big wheelie bins every week. Greenhope claims it turns all the pub glass it gathers back into beer bottles.
"With taxes rising, it's within everyone's interest to recycle as much as possible," says Mitchells & Butlers communications director Kathryn Holland. The company's glass and cardboard recycling scheme has so far been rolled out to half of its estate. Holland confirms that M&B's contract with waste chain Biffa is more cost efficient than having it put into the ground.
So, food for thought from a commercial and ethical standpoint.
From glass to ground
l Glass accounts for 42% of UK hospitality-trade waste
l The average pub generates 3.1 tonnes of glass every year
l Recycling 750,000 bottles saves enough energy to light every London street light for 12 hours
l If more glass is recycled, less countryside will be ripped up to create raw materials
l The UK has one of the worst recycling reputations in Europe: only 17.7% of the 434 million tonnes of waste generated each y