Friday, September 19, 2014

Returnable and disposable bottles

The latest Environmental History has an article by Robert Friedel, "American Bottles: The Road to No Return". Friedel discusses the complex causes of the move from returnable drink containers to disposable ones, mainly in the 1960s and '70s. Among other factors:
As early as the 1920s, increased use of packaging and increased mobility had been seen as jointly leading to a desecration of the land- and cityscape through indiscriminate littering. When “Keep America Beautiful” was organized as a national antilitter campaign in 1953, it was no coincidence that the leaders were from can and glass manufacturers. It was also no coincidence that this was the same year that the first serious legislative moves were made to discourage litter through controls of beverage containers. Vermont and Michigan experimented with legislation either to require deposits or to ban one-way containers altogether, but these efforts were short lived. Keep America Beautiful worked hard to divert efforts away from legislation and toward “cleanup drives” and educational campaigns.
advertisement, Washington Post, Aug. 4, 1949, 14
By the mid-1960s, however, political resistance to the rapidly spreading disposable containers intensified. The image of “The Beer Can by the Highway” had been popularized by essayist John A. Kouwenhoven to suggest the difficulty abundance posed to the quality of American life. The bottlers read in February 1965 of legislation proposed in four states, including California, to require substantial deposits on all beverage containers to discourage littering. None of these came to fruition. The speed with which the litter problem became prominent is startling in light of the shift to nonreturnables, which was still not that advanced in 1965. Returnable bottles represented 41 percent of beer sales that year and 82 percent of soft drinks. Nonetheless, the distress over litter became loud and dangerous for the bottlers.
Bottlers reacted with alarm at the increasing visibility and notoriety of the disposal problem. Occasionally there was frank acknowledgment of their industry's role in creating the problem. Much more typical was the editorial in the American Soft Drink Journal headed, oddly enough, “Guns Don't Commit Murder.” The gist of the editorial was the following: “Great care must be taken that in today's packaging revolution, an unpleasant side effect is not created in the form of inane and untenable laws restricting our containers. Let's be sure the laws stay on target—the litterbugs who abuse our countryside.” The following month the journal devoted most of its issue to “Litter.” This presented the matter in a slightly more balanced way, explicitly recognizing “the disposal problems created for municipalities and other governmental agencies as an increasing number of soft drink containers are converted from the traditional returnable type to non-deposit, one-way bottles and cans.”

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