No Deposit, No Return: Disposable Bottles Are Taking Over

The colas are coming! ...in disposable bottles, with cans close behind.
By Mike Kiernan
March/April 1972

Not surprisingly, the switch to disposable bottles created more litter.
PHOTO: RISTO0/FOTOLIA


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Once the world was considered flat. Then it became round. Now it's generally seen as pear-shaped. But to a few international salesmen in New York, the world is something else altogether—round at the bottom, narrow at the neck and topped with a twist-off cap. To these men, all the world is a soda pop bottle — the no-deposit, no-return kind — and sometimes their world of disposable bottles gets shaken up a bit.

Take for example the almost legendary battle between the two soft drink giants, Coke and Pepsi, on the tiny island of Formosa in the 1960s. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was angry with the Pepsi people and about to cancel their concession. Coke was gaining a toehold on the island. What was Pepsi to do?

In a bold stroke of diplomacy, Pepsi sent its heaviest lawyer — Richard Nixon — to Formosa, and within a few days Nixon had settled the problem, sewing up the Taiwan market for his clients. The fizz subsided. The Pepsi generation kept together. Even today, only Pepsi is bottled in Formosa.

As the anecdote suggests, American soft drink companies compete fiercely and worldwide, especially Coke and Pepsi . . . each of which sells its product in more than 120 countries.

With the current thaw in East-West relations, more new markets have begun to open up, and one result has been a virtual American soft drink blitz into Eastern Europe.

In the last few years people in Yugoslavia, Hungary and Bulgaria have all been introduced to Coke and Pepsi. Coca-Cola has managed to remain in Czechoslovakia despite a recent crackdown on other pro-Western enterprises, and Pepsi has announced that it will appear in Poland next year.

"As far as Russia and China are concerned, well, it will probably be a while before we get into those markets," says Americo Costa, executive vice-president for Pepsi in New York. "But there are certainly no ideological problems on our part. A market is a market, you know."

As the two carbonated giants attempt to enlarge their spheres of influence, a question arises about the current American effort to make beverage containers non-returnable. Will a major conversion to non-returnables in this country begin to take place in other countries as well?

Pepsi's Americo Costa thinks not. "Non-returnables are strictly a convenience. People must pay for it. A few cents extra per bottle is of little consequence to most American consumers, but a few pennies mean a lot to a consumer in Africa, say, or even in parts of Europe."

Still, when an American beverage arrives in a country, it also makes available the most modern technology to bottle the beverage. These days that means non-returnables. Within the next few decades, disposable bottles and cans may very well begin to pile up along roadsides around the world.

Like Costa, most soft drink officials dismiss the suggestion, but already non-returnable containers are being discarded in large quantities in England, France, Germany and South Africa. Once the conversion to non-returnables is completed in America — a possibility within the next ten years — the rest of the world might very well follow suit.

And the price could be more than the few pennies that Costa suggests.

In this country non-returnables have become not so much a convenience for the consumer as a convenience for the large bottler and food chain. When he buys a non-returnable bottle, not only does the average consumer pay more per drink for his beverage but he also eventually pays more in taxes to clean up after himself. A littered bottle or, can costs an average 30 cents to pick up, and litter is not the only problem.

Cans and bottles, unlike most other wastes, will not burn or break down naturally and they pose a major problem for solid waste managers. The truth is that communities are running out of places to put garbage, and the increase of bottles in local landfills is making an already difficult job overwhelming.

Barry Goldstein, a member of the Mayor's Environmental Committee For Action in Yonkers, N.Y., reports that "throw-away" containers account for 25 percent of the wastes at the local Yonkers dump. "The facility will be full in four to six years," says Goldstein, "but a switch to returnables could extend the life of the dump another year and a half."

Goldstein, who has researched the non-returnable question for nearly two years, has amassed a number of studies which show that "throw-aways" are far less desirable overall than returnables. He has made some of his major findings available to MOTHER EARTH NEWS:

— Beverages packaged in returnable bottles are always less expensive ounce for ounce than non-returnables. A family that buys two six-packs of Coca-Cola a week can save as much as $29 a year by buying those Cokes in returnable bottles.

— Chain stores represent the greatest opposition against returnables and it was pressure exerted by the chains that made the switch to "throw-aways" possible in the first place. Forced to use more manpower and storage space to handle returnables, food chains — especially those in major eastern cities — have resorted to all kinds of heavy-handed tactics to discourage their purchase. The maneuvers include raising the price of returnable containers, hiding them from customers and banning them outright. Goldstein notes that even if the cost of handling returnables were passed along to the consumer, the savings would still be considerable — as much as three to four cents per bottle.

— Deposit bottles are 15 to 21 times less likely to be found as litter than "throw-aways." "How can we blame the public for littering with non-returnables?" asks Goldstein. "Such containers are supposed to be thrown away."

— Non-returnables encourage monopolistic practices. A recent survey of 3,600 small bottlers showed that these businessmen prefer returnables five to one. A complete switch to non-returnables could put the small bottler out of business.

— In many cases recycling centers, supported by industry, are only smokescreens to silence critics and keep non-returnables on the market. Recycling on a major scale is still decades away. Even the Soft Drink Newsletter has questioned the sincerity of the industry's recycling efforts. It recently reported: "The much touted recycling efforts of the packaging majors are rumored to be so much 'hogwash' ... it was said they actually are dumping much of what they are redeeming because it is cheaper to start from scratch."

— The best argument to maintain the status quo and not switch back to returnable bottles entirely is that such a switch might throw thousands out of work. But Goldstein reports that the problem of job relocation is exaggerated. He cites testimony from the presidents of two major bottling companies, Robert Barth of 7-Up in L.A. and M.F. Weil of Nehi Royal Crown Chicago, which indicates that the switch to returnables would create "minimal" problems in the industry generally.


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