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January 20, 2006

Bottle Battle

About yesterday's post on glass recycling -- some astute readers noticed that by focusing on recycling, I'd ignored more important priorities:  reducing the use of packaging, and reusing glass bottles where practical.  That's a fair enough critique.  But it did make me wonder:  what happened, exactly, to the practice of reusing glass bottles?  I can still remember drinking Coke from reusable bottles as a kid, but I rarely see that anymore. How come? And, more to the point, how would a system of reusable glass bottles stack up against recyclable glass and plastic containers?

On the first question -- what happened to reusable bottles? -- there's this recent article that sums up the situation nicely.  In a nutshell:

  • Beverage marketers prefer customized bottles, with a unique shape and feel for each brand; but a reusable bottle system is most cost-effective if all bottles are interchangeable.
  • Food stores don't like to take back bottles.  It's an administrative hassle and takes up time and space that they'd prefer to use for other purposes.
  • Consumers don't like to return bottles.  Given the option, they'd prefer to recycle a bottle than return it for reuse.

Obviously, those barriers aren't insurmountable by any means.  But they also don't seem to be uniquely characteristic of North American consumer culture.  Though Japan's economy is far more energy-efficient than ours, its reusable bottle system, which used to be extremely effective, now seems to be falling by the wayside.  (Sigh.)

Some of the same forces are at play in Japan as in the US -- beverage makers are introducing customized shapes and sizes of many drinks.  But perhaps just as importantly, Japan's beverage delivery services -- which would pick up empty bottles at the same time they delivered new ones -- have declined, with more people getting their drinks from supermarkets.  The decline of reusable bottles is just a side-effect of other economic and social forces.

Of course, there are public policies that could stimulate a resurgence of reusable bottles -- mandatory bottle deposits, requirements that stores accept reusable bottles, perhaps seed money for local bottlers to restart the reusable bottle system.  An uphill battle, to be sure -- but it could have its benefits.

Then again, before we consider that sort of thing we should take a careful look at the possible hidden costs of reinstating a returnable bottle system.  Consumers might avoid reusables; unreturned and broken bottles can eat into the energy savings of a reusable bottle system; it's even conceivable that a reusable bottle system could generate extra car trips, reducing the net-energy benefits. 

Of course, reusable bottles could still save energy, reduce waste, and create local jobs, compared with glass recycling, or even with lightweight recyclable plastics.  But I think we'd owe ourselves a careful accounting of just what these benefits might be before spending all the political capital needed to reboot the reusable bottle industry.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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We'd probably need a recycle system as well as a reuse system, so broken or misplaced bottles wouldn't be totally lost.

I'm imagining a deeply-granola local soda co. that reuses any bottles with the right size cap - just charge by volume...

Posted by: clew | Jan 20, 2006 11:50:36 AM

Another option - focusing on the restaurant trade, where bottles are emptied on-site. If a company could niche-market to restaurants, reusable bottles might make sense -- since they'd be able to pick them up when they deliver beverages.

Then again, that might work for wine; beer, milk and soda are probably sold more efficiently in bigger packages -- kegs of beer, bags of milk, syrup containers for soda.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jan 20, 2006 11:59:41 AM

For what it's worth, a local jam company in Arcata, Calif., has a collection bin outside the supermarket-sized co-op there where people can (and do) return their jam jars.

Perhaps reusables are more attractive in a more localized economy. Less transportation costs (and energy use), too.

Granted, this is not exactly a scaleable model. With energy costs being as low as they are today, it would be impractical for every producer to offer their bins to receive back their ketchup, juice, wine, bottles.

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman | Jan 20, 2006 1:25:23 PM

I wonder too if there are any lessons we can draw from less wealthy countries. One curiosity of my experiences abroad is the frequency with which I've encountered re-usable bottles. They're the norm in much of SE Asia and Africa and lots of Latin America too. (This is especially true of beer and soft drinks.)

What's the difference, smart-guy? Is it just the relative expense of the natural resources used in producing the bottles?

Posted by: Eric de Place | Jan 20, 2006 1:26:18 PM

Smart guy -
I figure it's got to be a wealth effect. For us, throwing away a bottle that costs a nickel to produce seems like a reasonable tradeoff. If you're not so wealthy, that nickel is really worth something.

Also -- it may be that developed nations simply produce & distribute things like bottles more efficiently. That is, it may actually be cheaper here to produce a bottle, fill it with soda, and send it to the store. That would amplify the wealth effect.

Obviously, I'm just making stuff up here -- it seems reasonable to me, but I'm no expert...

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jan 20, 2006 3:32:58 PM

Among the less less-wealthy countries where refillable bottles are commonly used for beer is Canada. Right there in Cascadia, British Columbia managed to recover 140+ million beer bottles in 2004 (approx. 92% recovery rate). Each bottle is refilled an average 15 times. BC also has a well-developed container deposit system that collects a wide range of non-refillable containers. So if you want to look into the energy accounting/political capital question, perhaps you need only look northwards. Of course, it might be that Canadian brewers were open to the idea of standardized bottles because they were confident that their beers could be distinguished on the basis of flavour.

Posted by: Kevin Connor | Jan 20, 2006 9:21:59 PM

California charges deposit fees for many containers, which spawns an interesting side effect that I'd never expected when I moved to San Francisco--people who don't care about the deposit fee just recycle their bottles, and while the bottles are sitting at the curb overnight people come around the neighborhoods collecting the bottles. It's apparently so prevalent that there are actually laws against such collection.

Posted by: Eric | Jan 21, 2006 8:11:47 AM

Kevin --

Great point!! Yet another thing that the NW states can learn from their neighbor to the north...

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jan 21, 2006 1:52:50 PM

Happy to be of service. You can thank me by asking Eric (de Place) about the ins and outs of returning Indiana bottles for Michigan deposits.

Posted by: Kevin Connor | Jan 23, 2006 12:04:31 PM

One of the stated issues in Australia, where reusable bottles have largely dissapeared, was that the expense, for the handling, energy and water required to properly clean and sterilise the bottles, was higher than creating a clean, sterile bottle from recycled materials. High public health standards and fear of litigation can push up prices dramatically.

Posted by: Mike | Jan 28, 2006 5:26:01 AM