Sustainable Coastlines urges Container Return Scheme reprioritisation | Sustainable Coastlines

A year to the day after it was announced, the government announced the deferral of the Container Return Scheme (CRS). Josh Borthwick, CEO of charity Sustainable Coastlines, says this news is disappointing given the huge public support for the programme and the potential it has to change the way we think about and deal with waste in Aotearoa.

In March 2022, the government announced the CRS as part of a proposal to overhaul current recycling and waste management, which also included standardising recycling across Aotearoa and food waste collections for business.

At the time, Sustainable Coastlines reported that 7.7% of litter items surveyed through their litter database, Litter Intelligence, were related to the items proposed in the deposit scheme.

A fizzy-drink bottle in a pile of collected litter at a Sustainable Coastlines clean-up

“That’s a pretty significant proportion,” says Borthwick. “That percentage is all room for improvement, and the government’s container return scheme is well-positioned to address it. We saw this as a big win for our environment.”

Litter on our coastlines does not just result from people littering and items washing up on the beach, but as Borthwick explains, is often a result of ‘leakage’.

“This is when rubbish escapes our bins due to wind or during collection, and makes its way down stormwater drains to our coastlines. Well-intentioned recyclers like you and me still end up polluting our beaches. A well-designed return scheme would significantly reduce the litter reaching our environment, as well as incentivising people to pick up containers when they find them in the environment.”

Litter data being recorded on the remote Fiordland coast

Revisiting the data after the announcement of the deferral, Sustainable Coastlines’ insights and impacts analyst, Carla Fonseca Paris, notes that 32,828 pieces of drinks-related litter have been collected since the inception of the Litter Intelligence programme in 2018. This includes plastic bottles, glass bottles, cans, lids and pull-tabs, and bottle neck rings.

“Since we looked at the data last year, citizen scientists have collected 8,798 more of these drinks-related items, and that’s just what was found in our 311 survey areas. As of 15 March, these items make up 7.9% of our total litter,” says Fonseca Paris.

While not a statistically significant increase, this indicates the problem is not getting better on its own. Sustainable Coastlines encourages people to take action as individuals, but emphasises the power of business and government to make wider changes.

At a litter survey in 2021, the Sustainable Coastlines team found plastic bottles at a rate 30 times the national average

The charity recently announced its goal to see 60% less litter on the coastlines of Aotearoa by 2030, and views litter data collected through its Litter Intelligence programme as a key way to achieve that.

“Data collected by citizen scientists concerned about the state of their local beach has informed government reporting and policy on litter. That’s a huge win for the people that care about our coasts,” says Borthwick, referring to the government’s ban on problem plastics that is currently being phased in.

“We know the government supports this mahi, and we hope to see the Container Return Scheme reprioritised in the near future.”

While the charity’s waste-reduction priorities are ‘refuse, reduce, and reuse’, recycling still has an important role to play. “It definitely has its place,” says Borthwick, “A functioning recycling system will make a big difference to our waste problem, but a circular economy with reusable containers is where we should eventually aim.”

The CRS has significant public support, with 91% of submissions supporting the scheme, and would represent a step towards redesigning how we deal with waste in Aotearoa.

Litter Intelligence
Run by Sustainable Coastlines, Litter Intelligence is Aotearoa’s first national litter database. It enables citizen scientists to collect litter data suitable for reporting at the highest levels. Four times a year, citizen scientists survey the same 1,000m2 section of beach. The resulting data helps to paint a picture of the litter in Aotearoa, helping to inform decision-makers tackling the problem.

The data is freely available at