Friday, November 23, 2012

Was Curbside Recycling the Invention of Beverage Companies?

We often think of programs like curbside recycling as driven by a pure environmentalist agenda. But Bartow J. Elmore makes an intriguing argument these programs were passed in substantial part because of pressure from U.S. beverage makers, who were trying to address a public relations nightmare and to increase their profits. His essay, "The American Beverage Industry and the Development of Curbside Recycling Programs, 1950-2000" appears in the Autumn 2012 issue of the Business History Review (vol. 86, number 3, pp. 477-501). This journal isn't freely available on-line, but many in academia will have access through library subscriptions. From the abstract:

"Many people today consider curbside recycling the quintessential model of eco-stewardship, yet this waste-management system in the United States was in many ways a polluter-sponsored initiative that allowed corporations to expand their productive capacity without fixing fundamental flaws in their packaging technology. For the soft-drink, brewing, and canning industries, the promise of recycling became a powerful weapon for combating mandatory deposit bills and other source-reduction measures in the 1970s and 1980s." 

As Elmore tells it, the story unfolds like this: For much of the 20th century, soft drink and beer companies shipped bottles. Then local bottling companies filled the bottles with beverages. The bottles included a deposit that was often 1 or 2 cents for returning them. Thus, the local bottling companies collected the empties, and washed and reused them. Elmore cites evidence that in the late 1940s, 96% of all soft drink bottles were returned, and a given bottle was often used 20-30 times before becoming chipped or broken.

But after Prohibition, as beer companies rebuilt their national sales networks, they started turning away from local bottlers, and instead using a larger centralized brewery and shipping beer in steel cans. Pepsi-Cola started shipping soft drinks in steel cans in 1953, and Coca-Cola followed in 1955. For the soft drink companies, there was a long-standing belief that they could raise profits if they could find a way to reduce the number of local bottlers: sure enough, the number of local bottlers fell from 4500 in 1960 to about 3,000 by 1972.

But there was a problem. The steel cans, and then aluminum cans, were "one-way"--that is, they weren't washed and recycled. To put it another way, they were a high volume of long-lasting garbage. People protested and state legislatures began to make ominous noises about taxing or banning nonreturnable drink containers. Industry banded together in the 1950s to create the first national anti-litter association: Keep America Beautiful. But promotional ads to encourage picking up litter weren't enough, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Congress along with various states was again contemplating a ban on nonreturnable containers.

And so the beverage and canning companies, along with garbage giants like Waste Management and Browning-Ferris and scrap metal companies like Hugo Neu, formed a coalition with environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation to push for federal grants that would help set up recycling programs. As Elmore writes: "The beverage industry positioned itself as the keystone of the recyling system." When anyone argued for reuseable drink containers, a common response was that doing so would cripple the recycling system, and that it would cost jobs in the can-making industry. 

States stopped passing laws requiring mandatory deposits on cans and bottles: since 1986, only Hawaii has passed such a law. Instead, taxpayers and ratepayers at the federal and state level paid for curbside recycling. Elmore writes: "Taxpayers were taking on the majority of the cost of collecting, processing, and returning corporate byproducts to producers, and industry remained exempt from disposal fees that might have been used to pay for expensive recycling systems. More critically, government-mandated source-reduction and polluter-pays programs had been discredited as viable methods for reducing the nation's pollution problem."

Compared to the 1940s when 96 percent of bottles were washed and reused, often a couple of dozen times, where do we stand today? Elmore cites evidence that in the mid-2000s, maybe 30-40 percent of cans and plastic bottles are recycled.

I wouldn't want to try to turn the clock back to the days of rewashing and reusing bottles. But it's not at all obvious to me that curbside recycling is doing the job. Ten states have laws requiring deposits on cans and bottles, according to the lobbyists at If we want people to be serious about recycling, having a policy of 5-10 cents for returning cans and bottles is likely to be a more effective tools than curbside recycling.