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Former Australian of the Year Ian Kiernan has called on three major drink makers to take responsibility for their waste as they launch legal action against a recycling scheme.

Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA), Schweppes Australia and Lion  are challenging the Northern Territory's 'cash for containers' recycling scheme in the Federal Court in Sydney.

Kiernan joined environmental campaigners protesting outside the court on Tuesday as the legal challenge began.
 The companies oppose the NT scheme which involves a 10 cent deposit on drink purchases, refundable when the container is returned to a recycling agent.

Kiernan, who founded Clean Up Australia, says it's time for drink companies to take responsibility for the waste they create.

"They sell us the beverage, they sell us the container, plus profit, plus GST and then they say, 'You get rid of it'," he said.

Coca-Cola, he said, was failing to do the right thing in particular.

"They are a multinational that are challenging legislation that has nearly 90 per cent support in the Northern Territory," Kiernan said.

"They are interfering with our democratic process and we won't put up with it. Look out Coke."

Coca-Cola has labelled the scheme an environmental failure, saying only a third of containers are being recycled.

But Total Environment Centre executive director Jeff Angel says the figures don't tell the whole story.

"In the Northern Territory after nine months they have doubled their recycling rate to about 33 per cent," he told reporters in Sydney.

The scheme, which has been operating in South Australia for decades, was likely to see 80 per cent recovery rates within a couple of years, he said.

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