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Reading some comments on the question comparing various materials from which bottles are made, the thought arose: indeed, what prevents large scale collection and reuse of glass tare?

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, there was a standard 0.5l bottle which was used nationwide for anything from lemonade to beer:

enter image description here

One could turn in those bottles for cash refund in any store, and later they would be cleaned (steam cleaning, perhaps?) and reused with new tags. Likewise, bottles and jars for dairy (milk, sour cream, quarks etc.) were all standard and could be returned to a local dairy shop or a larger market where they would be cleaned and reused, sealed by colour-coded aluminium foil, much like Yoplait yoghurt containers.

Obviously, centrally planned and operated Soviet economy allowed for streamlined collection and return: shops would send the bottles back to regional distributor, which, in turn, would relay them back to manufacturers. In the market economy with fragmented distribution of retailers and bottlers, and with countless variations on bottle shape in lieu of preposterous “brand-recognition” concept (if everyone is “unique” I still cannot tell them apart), organizing such concerted effort would be undoubtedly difficult.

However, European Green Dot system, seems to yield some results, even in the face of packaging industry opposition it initially endured. And so there are ways to reuse glass tare by returning it all the way to the manufacturer from the consumer.

So, is the European system successful, can it be replicated and are there better alternatives? Given the push back by special interests, is it viable to promote standardised containers to simplify the logistics? Are there other concerns, such as health or enforcement of food safety, or if the manufacturer has to disinfect the new bottles anyway, does it make any difference?

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The big problem in the US is with expectations. I remember the first time I ordered a beer in Quito and it came in an obviously re-used bottle and I was both amazed (in a pleasant way) and shocked at the same time. Bottle re-use is obvious. You see wear lines develop around the bottles. This is one reason I think remanufacture is preferred to re-use in the US. Consumers, at least all the businesses think, prefer picture-perfect goods to buy. The bottles, despite branding, had an efficient reuse infrastructure with most restaurants collecting and returning the bottles for re-use.

We don't have a strong re-use culture in the US at present and such a culture is a necessity to reuse containers in ways which are obvious to the consumer. I think this is the big obstacle, but if it is tackled, beverage manufacturers will end up having to comply.

A second important obstacle we have is the three tier alcohol distribution system. This makes it very difficult for breweries to have deals with restaurants regarding bottle reuse, because the distributors must be the broker both ways, and currently they are only the brokers in one direction.

I don't think these are insurmountable but it means tackling a lot of very dear aspects of American consumption and economic culture to make it happen, I am afraid.

  • The soda bottles sold by Latino stores in US (old-school Coke and Pepsi, bottled south of the border) often look pretty worn as well, so I assume they reuse them. Import/export would make re-use a lot harder, though. – theUg Mar 2 '13 at 16:17
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    I like how you say "at least all the businesses think", because I always hate it when people blame the lack of environmentally friendly policies and businesses practices in the US on consumers, when in fact we have little say over how products are marketed and sold to us. – lemontwist Mar 2 '13 at 16:38
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    @lemontwist, I used to work at a fruit stand run by a local orchard when I was in high school. Not all the fruit we sold was picture perfect. What made the difference though, I think, was that I could guide people through options. I had a reputation for being able to sell rotten peaches (I couldn't, but I could sell peaches that needed to be eaten that day or else they would be rotten simply by looking for customers who wanted fruit to eat right then). – Chris Travers Mar 3 '13 at 0:52
  • I wonder how to recruit local micro-brews to start their own standardisation and collection program. I bet, if it would be economically viable, it would be an important first step, and, as an added bonus, it could actually be a selling point. – theUg Mar 3 '13 at 4:17
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    @ChrisTravers, the 3 tier system may be an advantage when it comes to re-use. A middle tier that makes a selling point of collecting and returning containers would be more efficient than manufacturers each setting up their own system. Obviously, the middle tier would need buy-in from both the other tiers though, which might take some work. – Highly Irregular Mar 11 '13 at 2:34
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In Germany there is a system, just the way you describe it. It is something like, anything container that contains a drink, which is not a milk product has to charge extra money for the container (e.g. bottle), which is to be refunded on return of the container. (Aluminium cans are also exempt.) There is a special word for this amount of money, which at the moment is 0.25€ for plastic bottles and 0.08€ for glass bottles.

It seems that the Coca-Cola company wasn't happy about their customers having to pay extra money for just the bottle, and having to bring the bottle back somewhere, so the German Coca-Cola contains fractional amount of whey, which allowed them to classify Coca-Cola as milk product...

In any case, other than that the recycling system seems to work quite well. Glass bottles are being reused. Even plastic bottles for water are manufactured to be stronger and are being reused. There are a number of standard bottles for manufacturers to choose from. The picture shows the standard glass bottle for (weakly carbonated) mineral water.

water bottle http://de-pic1.ciao.com/de/262618746.jpg

When the customer is done, he can bring the bottles to his nearest supermarket. Likely they will have a machine, where you put all your bottles in (full cases 1-by-1, bottles 2 at a time). The machine then gives you a voucher over the refunded money, which you can either turn into cash at the till, or use against your next shopping.

Returning used bottles

In the past 20 years I haven't heard of any health issues associated with reused bottles. The caps are always new and I don't think it is very difficult to sterilize bottles large scale.

As a last point, the Green dot system you mention does endure, at least in Germany, but is about recycling and not reusing a product.

It hasn't always been this way, but now my family's separated trash is (by weight)

  1. organic waste that is to be composted,
  2. bottles/jars that are to be reused,
  3. paper that is to be recycled,
  4. jars that are to be recycled,
  5. plastics that are to be recycled,
  6. waste that is not to be reused or recycled (usually land-fill).
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    Just a note on sterilization. Most home brewers reuse bottles. When I was getting started I used to dumpster dive for beer bottles to reuse. Sterilization is not a problem, and while I used to use chemical sterilization, I have moved to water/heat which works just as well once one gets used to safety/thermal shock issues. Sterilization is the easiest part of the process, actually. – Chris Travers Mar 2 '13 at 12:30
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    @ChrisTravers, I don't know if you’re aware of it, but I’ve heard that beugel bottle by Grolsch is popular amongst brewers, cause it comes with nice locking cap. I had even seen replacement silicone washers on Amazon. – theUg Mar 2 '13 at 16:13
  • Good to know that German Coke is not vegan in case I ever travel there! – lemontwist Mar 2 '13 at 16:37
  • @theUg, yes they are. And the stopper is ceremic. I have seen other similar bottles with plastic stoppers which require chemical sterilization (since the plastic will melt in the oven). Those washers can be re-used until they start to crack though, and then replaced. – Chris Travers Mar 3 '13 at 0:49
  • @ChrisTravers, can you not pry the stopper of to clean it separately from the bottle? Edit: I actually have one laying around. It is possible, but tough without tools. – theUg Mar 3 '13 at 4:19
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In the UK, milk bottles used for home delivery of milk are reused (being collected by milk deliverer). This system has been in place for as long as I can remember (50 years) - and probably a lot longer.

I remember that, about 30-40 years ago, there was some serious discussion of standardising other drinks bottles, to allow reuse, but this was opposed by manufacturers - because they liked the "brand identity" of non-standardised bottles, and perhaps didn't want the hassle of setting up systems to collect and reuse. There doesn't seem to be much discussion of this now, and I wonder whether the encouragement of "recycling" by manufacturers is partly to give consumers a "feel-good" factor and reduce pressure for standardisation and reuse.

So, in my opinion, the answer to the question is "resistance from the drinks industry, and insufficient public pressure to overcome this."

  • The lack of discussion of this now may relate to the lack of glass bottles in use now - plastic ones have replaced them in so many places... – Flyto Jun 8 '14 at 6:37
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In Canada we return wine and beer bottles and beer cans, and the super large water bottles you see used in water coolers. You pay a deposit when you buy them, and you return them to the place you bought them (mostly; wine bottles are returned to a place that sells beer, not wine, because they have the contract.)

Time was, the beer bottles were all the same and were reused. Now every beer seems to have its own shape and colour. I can't easily discover what fraction of the returns are reused and what are recycled, but the claim is that 95% of the packaging for wine, beer and spirits (including corks, bottle caps, and boxes) is returned.

I grew up returning 4 quart milk jugs for reuse in Ontario; we consider it normal to take stuff back. We also have extensive recycling options with home pickup, but you don't put returnable stuff in the blue box. (Apparently if you do, the municipality will extract it and return it - I guess they get the deposit in that case.)

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The state of Oregon (U.S.) just began a beer bottle re-use system: "Oregon Launches First Statewide Refillable Bottle System In U.S."

Bottles are collected throughout the state by the infrastructure that already exists to collect bottles for recycling. From the article:

[The] new bottle [was] developed by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, the group that runs the state's bottle deposit system with support from major beverage distributors. [...]

The bottles are specifically designed for reuse:

The new bottles — which can be refilled up to 40 times — are made mostly from recycled glass at the Owens-Illinois glass manufacturing plant in Northeast Portland. The bottles were designed to be easily separated from the rest of the glass in the existing bottle deposit system, Schoening said.

Adoption by brewers is small but growing:

Initially, the refillable bottles are being used by seven breweries — including Double Mountain, Widmer Brothers, Buoy Beer, Gigantic, Good Life, Rock Bottom and Wild Ride — for some of their beers. But Schoening said he expects the numbers to grow. He's already talking with interested cider makers and wineries about using refillable bottles that might come in different colors.

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