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The importance of recycling beverage containers

“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, twelve full ounces that’s a lot, 

twice as much for a nickel too, Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.” 

 

This little jingle from the1930s sounds quaint today. As recently as the 1950s, Pepsi, Coke and other carbonated soft drinks typically sold in grocery stores and coin-operated vending machines for just 5 cents; if you returned the bottle, and most people did, you would get 2 cents back, meaning your drink itself cost only three cents! 

Today, individual soft drinks often cost more than a dollar. Heavy glass bottles are long gone, replaced by much lighter glass, flimsy plastic bottles, aluminum cans, or cardboard packages. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. 

Originally, most plastic soda bottles were made of high density polyethylene (HDPE); nowadays, most are are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), another easy-to-work plastic but with the ability, unlike HDPE, to be manufactured clear. The question of chemicals leaching from a plastic container into the beverage may have been answered satisfactorily for the manufacturers, but many consumers worry that small amounts of chemicals from the plastic bottles become part of their drink. Similarly, aluminum cans are lined with Bisphenol A (BPA), another plastic many consider toxic if ingested. Glass bottle containers are relatively heavy and can break if treated roughly. But for anyone worried about the safety of drinks packaged in plastic or aluminum, glass is the best choice.

And glass containers have another advantage over plastic and aluminum: they can be refilled and reused, not just recycled. That pre-World War II glass bottle of Pepsi or Coke, when returned, went to a factory where it was washed, refilled and sent back to the store or vending machine. But starting in the late 1950s with the introduction of plastic and aluminum cans and bottles, it became less expensive to throw the containers away and start over with newly made ones. Nowadays, only a tiny percentage of glass beverage containers, mostly for beer and wine, are refilled and reused. Today, 153 billion of the 243 billion beverage packages sold in the U.S. annually end up after a single use as litter, landfill or are incinerated, with most of the remainder being recycled. In this case, recycling means turning the can or bottle into its raw materials and starting all over again: much better environmentally than throwing them away as garbage but still energy intensive and wasteful compared to refilling. 

In 1971, Oregon became the first state to institute container deposit legislation (CDL) requiring vendors of carbonated (and various other) beverages to collect a deposit fee on each container sold. During the following 48 years, only 10 other states followed suit (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Vermont). Currently, the deposit fee per container in Michigan and Oregon is 10 cents and in the other states it’s 5 cents. From the start the beverage industry has spent large sums to strenuously oppose these “bottle bills” and to repeal them where they exist (Delaware repealed its bottle bill) and once in place to keep the deposit fee very low. At the same time they have lobbied for “curbside recycling” which transfers the costs from producers, vendors and beverage consumers to local governments.

In the 10 states where they exist, CDLs have considerably increased the rate of recycling. Fifty percent of PET plastic bottles are recycled in states with bottle bills but only 20 percent in states without; for aluminum cans the comparable figures are 84 percent and 39 percent. Recycling rates in general have increased as states have included more non-carbonated beverage containers; however, at the same time, more beverages in containers are being consumed so the number being thrown away has increased considerably. Americans now use 29 billion plastic water bottles per year, the manufacture of which consumes 17 million barrels of crude oil.  Employing recycled material for containers uses much less energy to produce than containers made from virgin materials: 30 percent less for plastic, 35 percent for glass, and 95 percent less for aluminum.

It will take a strong campaign by various groups including environmentalists and politicians at all levels of government to reinstitute the use of refillable glass containers in a major way and to even significantly increase container recycling rates by getting the remaining 40 states to pass CDLs. Increasing the deposit from a nickel to a quarter in states with CDLs would help induce many more people to take their used containers back to the store (and would provide extra money as well for the folks who scavenge for cans and bottles). 

Considering that at the time a bottle of Coke cost a nickel, the rebate for the bottle was 2 cents, a quarter for returning the container today seems only reasonable.  

 

Lakeville architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon writes frequently on environmental matters.