One at a time, the elderly lady places her empties into the gaping hole of a machine at the entrance to an Oslo supermarket. With a well-functioning deposit system, Norway recycles almost all of its plastic bottles.

With its 97 percent recycling rate, Norway is 10 years ahead of the EU’s 2029 target date, by when countries must recycle at least 90 percent of their plastic bottles. That compares to barely 60 percent in France and in the UK, which is considering a deposit system.

The deposit system is widely viewed as the key to the Nordic country’s success. Customers pay a few extra cents when they buy a drink in a plastic bottle, and they’re refunded that amount when they return their empties.

The concept of returning empties has become so widespread there’s even a verb in the Norwegian language for it: å pante. As an added bonus, the reverse vending machines give customers the choice of using their refund to buy a lottery ticket that benefits charity.

More than 1.1 billion plastic bottles and aluminium cans were returned in 2018 at collection points in supermarkets, petrol stations and small shops. In Fetsund, about 30 kilometres northeast of Oslo, a steady stream of trucks dump thousands of empties at a time at Infinitum’s main processing centre.

Bouncing along on conveyor belts, the plastic bottles that once contained water, juice or soda are sorted, compacted and placed on pallets resembling enormous colourful Rubik’s cubes, destined for a second life after recycling.

Each new plastic bottle contains around 10 percent recycled materials, a level the country hopes to increase with a regressive tax that would encourage manufacturers to use recycled plastic instead of new plastic, which is currently cheaper.

In this example of a circular economy, what some consider waste becomes a resource, whose value encourages collection and recycling. The idea has begun to catch on elsewhere.

According to WWF, the equivalent of 15 tonnes of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. While the Norwegian recycling industry acknowledges the planet needs to put an end to the problem, they think plastic — a lightweight, practical and cheap material — still has a promising future.