Retailers are pushing back against UK government plans for a deposit return program designed to encourage recycling of plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
The government is considering whether deposits on bottles should apply to all drink containers, or be limited to containers that are 750 milliliters (26.4 fluid ounces) or less.
Environmental groups overwhelmingly support the first option, while retailers are pushing hard for the second. Shoppers would recoup the deposit when their bottles are recycled.
The British Retail Consortium said in a statement Monday that the deposit initiative should focus on cans and bottles consumed outside the home.
It said that applying the plan to all containers would "undermine existing household collection schemes" and "make life more difficult for households who can currently recycle these items from the comfort of their home."
The trade group, which represents major sellers including Tesco, Whole Foods, McDonald's and Ikea, warned that setting up the program could cost up to £2 billion ($2.6 billion).
Around half of the 13 billion plastic bottles sold each year in the United Kingdom are recycled. The rest go to landfills, are burnt in incinerators — which can cause air pollution — or end up in the country's streets, rivers and beaches.
Environmental activists have warned the government against excluding larger bottles from the deposit program.
Surfers Against Sewage said Monday that of the 27,696 drinks containers its volunteers collected from beaches and rivers during a cleanup in October, 58% were 750 milliliters or larger. The group's chief executive, Hugo Tagholm, said the world's most effective deposit return systems cover all sizes of bottles.
Greenpeace UK said that a program limited to smaller bottles would "confuse customers" and fail to capture "millions" of larger bottles which would then end up in landfills, incinerators or oceans.
Retailers are using the same arguments that led the UK parliament to reject a similar initiative 40 years ago, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
"The decision to reject a Beverage Container Bill in 1981 ... was done on the grounds that industry itself would deal with the waste it was generating," the group said in a statement. It said those "were nothing but empty promises."
Similar programs are already in place in other European countries, including Germany. The return rate of drink containers has reached 98% in Germany, according to the government.
Some small trial programs have been successful in Britain, too.
The supermarket chain Iceland, which owns over 900 stores across the country, said that customers of four stores returned 311,500 bottles over six months when offered a 10 pence ($0.13) voucher.
Consumer goods groups are also experimenting with other ways of recycling more of their packaging. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé and others are working together on a project called Loop, which will offer consumers in Paris, New York and other cities the option of reusing their packaging. After using the products, customers put the empty containers on their doorstep to have them collected and refilled.
The UK government on Monday launched a 12-week consultation period on the deposit proposal, which is part of a new recycling policy that includes new potential taxes on producers whose packaging is harder to recycle.