Malta is the first Mediterranean success with deposit return scheme

A deposit return scheme (DRS) has been running in Malta since 14 November 2022. Malta was the 13th country in the EU to launch the scheme, and the first in the Mediterranean region. Some elements specific to the Maltese system include public hubs with reverse vending machines (RVMs), an obligation of the HORECA segment to participate, and the possibility to donate deposits to charity among others. Sensoneo ‘s IT DRS solution works as the backbone of the entire system as it integrates all stakeholders and gathers data from all sources within the process chain.

DRS is operated by BCRS Malta Ltd., and its CEO Edward Chetcuti talked to Sensoneo about the challenges and successes of the scheme. A unique mixture of beverage containers, logistics of public hubs, and feedback from the public required taking additional measures. All the effort made by BCRS Malta and the public’s willingness to participate in the scheme has led to impressive results: more than 60 million beverage containers were returned in 5 months since the launch, and the first quarter of this year showed Malta is on track to meet its targets and collect 70 % beverage containers placed on the market in 2023.

Reverse vending machines in Malta.

The deposit return scheme in Malta has been running for about five months now. Edward, what has the experience been so far?

Highly challenging but also incredibly rewarding.

BCRS Malta had to deal with challenges from day one as the implementation of the deposit return scheme here is, I believe, very different from everywhere else so far. We had to adapt the typical DRS model that is used in the mature northern European regions to fit the Mediterranean.

One big difference we were dealing with was the diverse beverage containers, which have an impact on capacities. The mix of containers used in the Mediterranean greatly differs from northern Europe: it is much less dependent on cans, and we have a huge predominance of plastic containers (about 70 %), with the majority being two liters or larger. We learned quickly that whether you are dealing with cans and smaller PET bottles, or large plastic bottles influences the whole scheme.

Another challenge, which was positive, was the public’s willingness to recycle and consumers participated actively right from the launch. This led to very high expectations from the start, both regarding the performance of machines and the logistics. As a result, there was no bedding-in period, where we could slowly adapt and observe the scheme.

To sum it up, we learned three big lessons from these five months.

  • The DRS affects the lives of everybody, every day.
  • It requires changes in culture.
  • And it works.

From the day we opened the doors of the clearing center, we have been receiving a huge amount of plastic daily, seven days a week. It makes you wonder, where was all this plastic going before?

Edward Chetcuti, CEO of BCRS Malta.

The challenges you faced required several adaptations to the scheme. Can you give us examples of changes you needed to make in Malta?

We have been very, very busy adapting, because although you can plan everything in detail and 90 percent of the time things ran smoothly, the remaining 10 % required a lot of effort and energy.

One of the things we needed to fine-tune was the reverse vending machines, both in terms of the way they mechanically handled large containers, as well as the storage space. As I said, most northern European schemes deal with a majority of cans or small plastic bottles, so when you have an RVM set for such a system, its ability for storing containers is greatly compromised when you’re collecting mostly two-liter bottles.

Another measure was that we had to put in place logistical systems to continuously empty the machines. When you have an RVM in a retail shop you have personnel who empty it. Public hubs are, however, a different case. We installed a smart logistic system where we had 20 people working 24/7 to empty the machines. The country is small and congested with traffic, so they operated on motorcycles, taking the beverage containers to the back of recycling hubs, and at night the big trucks would go and collect the material.

When it comes to the manual collection, we initially did not have a good uptake from retail and HORECA. Therefore, several changes were made to our app that allowed more collections to be booked. Also, we have given further incentives in the way of handling fees and how many bags we can collect, and the frequency of collection, and that all contributed to kick start the retail and catering sector into action.

People are sorting used plastic bottles and cans in the recycling facility in Malta.

These measures are more on the logistics side. Did you have to make changes based on the feedback from the public?

There was one of the biggest issues which we did not anticipate: the littering left by the public. If people leave some waste at the RVMs in supermarkets, the shopkeepers take care of it. However public hubs are not staffed and unfortunately some people are irresponsible. When they bring beverage containers in a box or a bag, they leave these by the public hubs. Similarly, until people got used to the system, they were taking bottles that were out of the DRS scope, such as wines and spirits, and leaving them there. That is why we had a major problem around the public hubs where a lot of rubbish accumulated, so we made an agreement with a cleaning agency to clean these hubs on a daily basis.

This caused a lot of trouble at the beginning of the scheme and people were posting photos on social media about the dirty public hubs, but we listened and scrambled to address these teething issues.

Beginnings are never easy. However, after the first quarter of the year, the results speak for themselves, which is very rewarding.

The building of BCRS in Malta.

Yes, you are getting some impressive numbers. We saw the numbers were growing very rapidly, with the first million collected in less than 7 days. Are the numbers in line with the targets for Malta?

We are just in the region of the 150th day. That is not a long time, but nevertheless, we have collected more than 60 million containers. For an island that is just 316 kilometers square meters, with 516,000 inhabitants, this is quite remarkable. We’re collecting around half a million containers every day, so about three-and-a-half million containers a week. The target for this year was to collect 70% of the products placed on the market. We have just closed quarter one of the year and all the indicators are showing we are on track to reach our targets. Five months ago, we were recycling less than 20 % of beverage containers, and now it is about 70 %, which is a giant leap forward.

That is a fantastic result indeed and probably also linked to the accessibility of collection points: there are several ways consumers can return their beverage containers, what is the most popular one?  

We have three methods of collection. There are reverse vending machines that can be found either in supermarkets or in public hubs. Those are two methods of automated collection. And then we’ve got the manual way of collection which is for consumers through a retail shop, or for hotels, restaurants, and catering establishments (HORECA) collecting their containers and then returning them to DRS for recycling. Ninety percent of the collection comes through reverse vending machines, i. e. the automated system, and 10% comes through the manual collection.

Of the 90 %, we receive from the automated collection, around 52 % come from supermarkets and 48 % come through the public hub. So, it’s practically a 50 % split and we have positioned the machines more or less in that manner: we have 320 machines across the country, half of them in retail, half of them in public hubs, and the collection is almost 50/50 equally split.

Recycled bottles and cans at sorting facility in Malta.

Public hubs are unique to Malta and from these numbers it shows they have proven to be a success, right?

Yes, the concept of the public hubs has been very, very successful as they are collecting practically equal quantities to RVMs in retail. The big difference between the two is that when you return beverage containers to the reverse vending machine in supermarkets, the voucher can only be redeemed there. When you go to the public hub, the voucher can be redeemed in any retail outlet participating in the scheme. People appreciate this freedom to use their vouchers wherever they feel like it. And because we’ve put a public hub in almost every locality, they are very accessible. 

And how has the HORECA segment adapted to the scheme? 

We have around 2,000 hotels, restaurants, and catering establishments registered in this scheme. And around 40 percent are actively participating in the system. The law obliges them to register, but between registering and actually collecting and returning beverage containers there is still a bigger adaptation phase. They must start separating waste in a way they did not do before, and keep the beverage containers whole and intact to be accepted. This creates logistical challenges, space constraints, and labor costs, which all contribute to explaining why take-up was slower. 

Nevertheless, a good portion of the HORECA segment is participating and contributing to that 10 percent collected through the manual collection. And obviously, the sector will become really busy in the summer, both with locals and tourists, so we expect the numbers to increase.

Are you planning to take some extra measures before the summer? 

Yes, definitely. We are installing an additional number of high-capacity reverse vending machines for PET bottles in 10 geographical regions which we identified would benefit the most. They will be based on a bulk system, so people can come and deposit several bottles simultaneously as opposed to one by one.

We are also extending capacities both in retail and public hubs to take more containers. And as for manual collection, we are increasing the frequency of collection. We know for the two or three busy months in summer we need to step up our operations to be able to collect a lot more containers.

Malta flag with the historical city in the background.

Numbers are of course vital indicators of whether the DRS is a success, but progress cannot be measured with statistics only. For example, in Slovakia, since the launch of DRS, there is considerably less littering on the streets and in nature. Is this the case in Malta too?

Yes, that is very true. In fact, the best recognition we received as a scheme was when the people responsible for the state’s cleaning department went on TV saying that since the scheme started, those who normally clean public areas were not finding much litter anymore. Usually, a lot of the littering is caused by discarded beverage containers.

Additionally, in Malta, we get a few sea storms over winter. And again, normally after a storm, a lot of plastic bottles wash ashore. But after the last couple of storms, there were hardly any bottles littering the beaches, which is incredibly encouraging.

We know there are numerous CSR activities connected to DRS in Malta. Can you tell us more about those?

Yes, the DRS benefits society in some wonderful novel ways. For example, a number of NGOs that take care of animals, mainly stray cats and dogs have set up their own mini-ecosystems, where they collect bottles and cans from consumers who are not interested in getting back the deposit. So, they collect them, take them to the machines and use the vouchers to buy food and shelter for these animals – it has become quite a big thing. So apart from cleaning the country, the DRS is also benefiting NGOs and charities.

In Malta, it is also possible to donate directly to charities through the RVMs (instead of taking the voucher), and about one percent of deposits were donated in this way. During Christmastime, people could forfeit their vouchers and donate to the biggest charity in Malta, the Malta Community Chest Fund, and to date, the donation to the charity directly from RVMs has exceeded €60,000. The deposit return scheme has led to many new opportunities.

The explanation of the process of the deposit return scheme in Malta.

It is very encouraging to see that despite all the challenges, Malta has truly been a DRS success, both in numbers and inspiring CSR activities. In this challenging period, has it been helpful to have Sensoneo as a partner?

Undoubtedly, IT is an important backbone of the whole deposit return scheme. Every change you make to the model has an impact on the underlying IT systems. I’ve said this before, and I always like to repeat that Sensoneo brings something to the table that is very important: the experience with DRS implementation, which is vital. When you are doing something new for the first time, you have no one to refer to so having a partner that has done it before is incredibly helpful.

But most of all when you are changing your model so quickly, at such short notice, it is key to have a partner that can, thanks to its experience, respond rapidly, solve the issues, and make required changes in a professional manner. Sometimes you feel like you are in a dark tunnel when you are encountering all these things so having a guiding light from someone who knows how to do it, and knows how to do it quickly, is what makes Sensoneo an exceptional partner for us!

Martin Basila and Peter Knaz from Sensoneo and two employees of BCRS Malta in recycling center.


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