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Reverse Vending Machines Explained

Reverse vending machines have yet to take off here in the UK. However, this is due to change thanks to the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy. Although there has been some delay in getting reverse vending machines installed, they are due to be implemented in 2024 with Scotland introducing theirs earlier, in 2022.

But what exactly are Reverse Vending Machines and how do they work? In this guide we’ll be looking at the technology behind the concept as well as how a deposit return scheme will work in practice. Many countries already have similar systems in place so we are able to build up a picture of how they could work here in the UK.

What is a Reverse Vending Machine?

A reverse vending machine (RVM) is a type of vending machine that instead of taking money and dispensing food and drink, takes empty packaging and returns a monetary reward. It does this by harnessing integrated technology with advanced automation.

Once the machine receives an eligible item it collects, sorts, compacts and stores it for later collection. Metal cans, plastic bottles and high-quality paper cups are all suitable for use with reverse vending machines.

How Does the Monetary Reward System Work?

This part of any reverse vending machine can be configured, depending on the circumstance. This is clear when you look at how RVMs have been used in other countries. Some require you to pay extra for the item in the first place, with a percentage of the total price making up a refundable deposit. Others make charitable donations when waste is fed into them and some dispense vouchers or tokens.

In the UK, a deposit return scheme approach has been proposed. Like in other countries, this would see an extra initial cost to the buyer with a portion being refunded on return of the empty packaging.

How Much Would a Plastic Bottle Deposit be?

These are the finer details that are yet to be ironed out. Since the government first committed to RVMs in 2018, there have been several consultations with a final figure yet to be agreed.
In Germany, RVMs have been available to the public for some time. They use a similar deposit system where consumers are charged the equivalent of 22p each time they purchase drinks housed in plastic, metal or glass. This is then refunded when the container is recycled.

When Will RVMs Come to the UK?

Whilst the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said the scheme will come into effect in 2024, there have already been multiple pushbacks. The launch in Scotland is looking likely to come into effect much sooner with a target of July 2022.

One of the reasons for the delay is that there is still disagreement over which containers will qualify and which will not. Campaign groups like Greenpeace are keen for an ‘all-in’ approach meaning all recyclable packaging will be eligible for the return scheme. This is in contrast to other bodies who would rather opt for a scheme that only covers take-away style disposable packaging.