The bottle return scheme launched this week has sparked concerns that small retailers will be placed at a disadvantage, with consumers perhaps preferring to visit larger supermarkets with on-site recycling machines.
However, according to the scheme’s leadership, “every care” has been taken to prevent this from happening.
Speaking to BusinessNow.mt, Chamber of SMEs president Paul Abela explains that it was precisely this concern that led the organisation to take a seat on the board of the Beverage Container Refund Scheme (BCRS).
“Our preoccupation was that big supermarkets are going to take away smaller retailers’ business,” he says, noting that the size and expense of the machines pose a challenge for the mom-and-pop shops characteristic of Malta.
The strategic placing of reverse vending machines (RVMs) in strategic catchment areas is one way to encourage their use outside of supermarkets, but BCRS went several steps further.
“I insisted that we should have bags, tags, and an easy-to-use app to check if a container is eligible for a refund,” says Mr Abela.
Certainly, some containers will be rejected: “You might have someone who imports something from Italy without registering it – these do not fall under the scheme, since the 10c fee was never charged on them.”
Mr Abela says that the original plan was to collect these bags once a month, though the issue of space for storage of returned containers remained an evident barrier.
A revision of the strategy resulted in a daily pick for those retailers who ask for it: “So now there is no issue of space.”
Apart from pick up, retailers also have the option of going to a public machine and putting in the bottles themselves.
Of course, handling these returns manually still places a burden on small shops, which might have just one person covering a shift., so BCRS sought to counter this by giving retailers 1c per bottle handled, giving them an incentive to take part in the scheme.
Matthew Dimech, head of administration at BCRS, notes that many smaller retailers will simply know what bottles are eligible without needing to check.
“Remember that many of these shops almost always sell the same products – water, soft drinks and beer.”
Mr Abela notes that the last time such a scheme was proposed, under the Nationalist administration in 2008, the Chamber of SMEs, then still known as the General Retailers and Traders Union (GRTU), was opposed to its introduction.
“The same arguments brought up then were the same ones that are relevant today – chiefly, the lack of space in small shops for such machines, and the disadvantage this puts them in vis-à-vis large supermarkets.”
He continues: “This time around, we were prepared, and, after a lot of consultation, agreed to be part of this scheme to ensure that our members’ interests are represented at the highest level and at every stage.”
He says that the scheme puts the onus on consumers to do their bit, but retailers also have a central part to play. “The general population needs to do their part, but it is retailers who must put in the work to make this work.”
Mr Abela however admits that this will be a learning experiences for everyone.
“Even if it is perfect, the first few days and weeks will have difficulties until everyone adjusts to the new reality. By time, everything will settle down.”
He concludes: “What is most important is that from day one, the Maltese environment is reaping the fruit of this scheme. People may complain about 10c and this and that, but we have to realise that we have to take care of the environment.”
Matthew Dimech / Facebook
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