Bring back the deposit

12th October 2016

Going for my weekly jog along the country lanes I noticed that someone had dumped an old cooker by the side of the road. Ugly, possibly dangerous, it looked almost as if someone was trying to open as shop dealing in second-hand goods. A dirty, tattered mattress lay in the hedge alongside, next to a broken armchair.

This week’s news that fly-tipping is on the increase will probably come as no surprise to anyone – the cost-benefit metric changed dramatically a couple of years ago when Cornwall Council introduced charges for taking certain types of rubbish to recycling centres.

Asbestos, tyres and general construction wastes have little “recycling” value and it wasn’t surprising that councils were keen to recover the costs of dealing with them. But now we know that the cost of not dealing with them is even higher – £67 million across the country, last year.

We are rightly indignant about the louts who spoil the beautiful Cornish countryside, but the problem is actually far worse in urban areas. Per head of population, the six councils with the worst problems are all in London.

According to Defra, there were nearly one million cases of fly-tipping in England and Wales last year – more than a third of them in London.

While some of this fly-tipping stems from laziness, much of it appears to be organised. About a year ago we reported how three men were ordered to pay more than £262,000 for illegally dumping more than 60,000 tonnes of waste in South East Cornwall.


The men were a haulier, and two farmers, and between them they had dumped nearly 66,000 tonnes of builders’ waste on farms at Callington and Saltash.

Last year we also reported details released under the Freedom Of Information Act, which showed that Cornwall Council had spent £743,000 cleaning up fly-tipping since 2012, dealing with 12,000 cases.

In the 12 months since the charges were introduced at recycling centres, Cornwall saw an increase of 1,400 in the number of fly-tipping incidents.

All of these statistics make for pretty gloomy reading, so it is comforting to retreat to the world of sepia-tinged nostalgia and recall how, half a century ago, I used to make a few shillings by collecting empty bottles and taking them to the nearest off licence.The idea was that consumers effectively paid a deposit on a glass bottle, which was then refunded when the empty bottle was returned to a participating retailer. The system effectively died out in Britain with the advent of disposable plastic bottles.

But in the United States – where bottle deposits are still widespread – figures show that the higher the deposit, the more likely a bottle is returned intact. In the US, where container deposits are still widespread, there’s a 70% return rate. Empty bottles are worth five cents.

The deposit scheme is of course simply another way of collecting a tax – and enforcing the principle that the polluter should pay. Instead of charging council tax payers £67 million for dealing with fly-tipping, manufacturers could (and should?) impose a small “deposit” for the return of an item at the end of its life.

Perhaps with fly-tipping, we should recognise that what we are dealing with is a form of organised crime – and get our retaliation in first.