A Pocket History of Bottle Recycling

A story of trash and class in America. Archived version of a text published with The Atlantic in 2013.

Empty beverage container collector, Uppsala 2012 (Finn Arne Jørgensen)

The Academy Award-nominated short documentary Redemption (2013) may not have won an Oscar statue in the end, but it remains a powerful introduction to the lives of “canners,” the many poor who collect empty bottles and cans on the streets of New York as a means of survival. In the film, empty beverage containers become a symbol for poverty and exploitation. They are waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained.

But it wasn’t always that way: Bottles were once valuable objects, not to be easily discarded. Their loss of value is not just a result of technological and material improvements, but also of social, economic, and political choices by consumers, corporations, and policy makers (or, as we too often call it, “the market”). If we go back 150 years, carbonated beverages were generally consumed on-site in bars, saloons, taverns, and restaurants. You could buy bottled beverages, but they were hand-filled and hand-capped, one bottle at a time. With the development of mass-produced bottles, crimp capping, and mechanized bottling at the end of the 19th century, increasing amounts of beverages were instead sold for consumption in the home or on the move. The bottles were expensive to produce, however, so bottlers used a deposit-refund system to ensure that consumers returned the bottles after use, and embossed the bottles with their logo and name as a means of claiming ownership.

Following World War II the beverage market changed dramatically. The former multitude of local bottlers and brands began to give way to fewer, larger bottlers operating on a regional and national arena. These began experimenting with disposable containers designed to no longer have any value to the bottlers. Instead of the company logo, the words “No Deposit, No Return” now decorated the bottles.

We all know what happened next. We have seen the surprisingly unsettling picnic scene in Mad Men, in which Don Draper throws his empty beer can in the grass, while Betty cleans off the picnic blanket by shaking all the trash off onto the ground, like it was the most normal thing in the world. We have seen the Crying Indian shed his iconic tears over all the litter and pollution of modern civilization. The 1960s were not just a decade of economic growth and freedom for many — they were also about discovering the environmental and social effects of this freedom. Environmental activists pushed back hard against the rising tide of litter, for instance pressuring Coca-Cola into offering a 5-cent deposit in 1971, arguing that producers should shoulder their share of the responsibility for a feared landfill crisis.

Bottle legislation was a systematic and political response to this one key component of the growing litter problem. As early as 1953, Vermont introduced a bottle bill banning non-refillable bottles, but the law lasted only four years due to heavy lobbying from the beer industry. In 1971, Oregon implemented the first bottle bill requiring a deposit. This deposit was five cents, just like it is today. How many other prices have remained the same over 42 years? Vermont followed in 1973, and Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, and New York had followed by the early 1980s. A number of proposed bottle bills in other states had been struck down by industry opposition. The beverage industry fought the new bottle bills tooth and claw, seeing them as a “direct and politically motivated infringement on the free market and a threat to profits,” as geographer Matthew Gandy wrote in Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste.

Bottle deposits met with massive resistance from New York grocers, who argued that their business was “selling goods, not buying trash.” Most city grocery stores were small, and were more interested in stocking their limited space with increasing amounts of beverages people could buy than in storing empty bottles. Nor did they care much for the new clientele that the bottle bill brought into their stores. There was “not an ecologist among them,” as the owner of an Eighth Avenue deli stated in 1971. Issues of race and class clearly factored into most storeowners’ resistance to bottle deposits.

Empty beverage containers and their collectors become problems because they are so visible, which is expertly depicted in Redemption. The canners with their enormous sacks of bottles and cans stick out as something that does not belong in our modern cities. They would perhaps not exist without the bottle deposit, but getting rid of it would certainly not solve the underlying problems that made it impossible for them to make a living in any other way.

Furthermore, bottle deposits do not necessarily cause the appearance of canners. Deposits are common in Europe; in the Scandinavian countries, which I discuss in my book Making a Green Machine, returning your empty bottles to the store is a perfectly normal, everyday activity that most people engage in. About 95 percent of all beverage containers with a deposit sold in Norway — glass, plastic, and aluminum — are currently returned for recycling. Hungover students return bottles after yesterday’s party on Saturday morning. Kids collect and return bottles to get extra pocket money for candy. Families drop off their bottles in the reverse vending machine on their way into the grocery store. Even one of Norway’s richest men has publicly stated that he recycles his empty bottles — not because of the environment, but because it’s about money. There are poor people that pick bottles out of public trashcans, for sure, but there just aren’t all that many of them. In some urban spaces, trashcans have even been designed with separate spaces for empty beverage containers to that the bottle pickers and canners can find them without having to go through the trash.

So why do so many Norwegians recycle? Is it simply because the deposits are higher? Norwegians are refunded 1 krone for small containers and 2,5 kroner for large containers — the equivalent of respectively 17 and 43 cents. This may sound high, but remember that the average monthly salary in Norway is about $6,700. Very few people recycle because they have to. No, the deposits matter, but it matters just as much that Norwegians never discarded the recycling habit.

But to return to New York, the international comparisons leave us with a tricky question: if New York introduces a higher deposit that makes people recycle their own bottles, what will happen to the canners who depend on the income from bottle collecting? After all, the background to the story Redemption tells is one of deindustrialization, unemployment, economic crisis, and missing social safety nets. Over at Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley suggests that with the New York bottle bills “the state has outsourced its acts of environmental virtue, at far below minimum wage.” Such an argument has merit, though we can also interpret the real story of Redemption as one where environmental legislation ends up with managing and offsetting not just the environmental, but the social cost of an economic system that is more concerned with profit than with people.

What is then a consumer supposed to do if he or her wants to be both green and socially responsible? Among the many readers’ letters to New York Times that complain of the annoyances of recycling, there are others that consider their non-recycling as a form of redistribution of money: “Cheers to our homeless for keeping the park clean. It’s hard work, but they’re doing it; I plan to add my empty cans to a garbage container for someone needier than I,” wrote one New Yorker in 1985. It is a convenient, and probably well-meaning, choice, for sure. But it is certainly not a simple path to redemption.

Originally published with The Atlantic 27 February 2013. Dead links updated.

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