Prefatory Note

January 23, 2014

Greg Bryant

RAIN produced this review of refillable containers twenty years ago. Today, the public's willingness to reuse is still crystal clear. It's more fun and more civilized, and people know it.

Despite decades of misdirection, and billions spent on marketing to promote disposables, the US has: a culture of refillable beer growlers that has won public approval; bulk sections that are commonplace in markets; reusable dishes and utensils common at public events; and new laws encouraging reusable bags.

Oregon had the first US bottle bill, and the hope was that refilling would then become practical. But corporations fought the idea of reuse, and profit-seeking, non-local waste companies make sure that 99% of deposit bottles are melted down for scrap.

This same waste industry has even circumvented the social contract regarding bottle recycling ... 46% of recycled bottles, even in Oregon, go straight to the landfill.

When the public hears this, they get very upset, and look for alternatives.

Not only that, but recent studies have shown all plastic containers and bags to be harmful, both to human health and our environment's. Glass, metal and ceramics still remain the best technologies.

So, there's an obvious "community opportunity" here.

Anywhere in the US, local governments and non-profits could get into the business of waste management, to encourage:

  • local, democratic control

  • new and meaningful work

  • fair and democratic workplaces

  • local reuse partnerships

  • improved efficiency through re-use

  • more effective recycling

  • environmentally-sensitive waste recovery

  • more inventive and permanent containers

Immediate opportunities are easy to see: for example, sodastream has no incentive to replace their harmful pet bottles with glass ones, which they'd have to, if they admitted that they were dangerous. So, locally, bottles from recycled glass could be cast to replace these, providing a permanent solution to the problem of plastic water bottles.

The shape of a future "reuse economy" is hinted at by the story below. To make it happen in your community, also check out studies at the GrassRoots Recycling Network from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.


Update August 4, 2022

The issues and solutions in this article are still being rediscovered, as global warming becomes more critical.


October 24, 2022

A new study concludes that there is no plastic recycling, so reuse / refilling must be scaled up as soon as possible.


Story and Photos by Chris Figenshau

Illustrations by Paul Ollswang

RAIN 14-3, Spring 1993

Containers used to be built to last. Nobody would throw them away, just as today we wouldn't toss out our fine dinnerware or cleaning buckets. In cities, before supermarkets or public plumbing, overworked milk and water carriers came into town to meet urbanites who carried their own empty containers. For the wealthy, carriers would come to the doorstep to scoop new liquid into waiting bottles. Later the bottle was delivered full, and used bottles picked up in return, essentially adding washing to the service. Eventually the sealed bottle became a commodity sold in the marketplace, so people brought their used bottles back to these points of sale. And as the consumer/producer relationship became more anonymous, vendors charged a deposit for bottles to ensure their return.

People habitually saved soda and beer bottles to collect these deposits. The bottles found their way to the beverage company where they were washed, refilled, and redistributed. Containers were easily reused, often for other than their original purpose, because lids were standardized.

The decline of the reusable system came soon after World War II. With post-war affluence, beer and soda consumption rose sharply. Steel and aluminum industries, in a partial slump after the war, began to produce cans in place of artillery. In the steel-dependent city of Pittsburgh, signs urged consumers to HELP SELL STEEL. BUY SOFT DRINKS IN CONVENIENT CANS. The advertisements argued that throwaway containers provided a convenience worth a few extra cents.

In 1960, only 4% of all beer and soft drinks came in non-returnable containers. Seven years later that figure rose to 33%. In 1978 it jumped to 80% and by 1986, 90% of all beer and soda containers were thrown away. According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, between the years 1958 and 1976 US per capita consumption of bottles, cans, boxes, wrappers and other packaging increased by 63%. In 1990 packaging accounted for some 30% of the municipal solid waste stream.

Recycling is often touted as the solution to this solid waste crisis. But why break a container down and send it through an energy-intensive process of melting, purifying and re-molding when the same container could simply be washed and re-used? A study by the Franklin Associates found that use of a refillable glass bottle consumed as much as eight times less energy than any other container, including recycled containers. An EPA survey concluded that savings from refillable containers ranged from 60 cents to $2.00 per case for beer, and from 3.5 to 5 cents per container for soft drinks. Refilling is clearly cheaper and more efficient than immediate recycling or disposal.

" ... a refillable glass bottle consumed as much as eight times less energy than any other container, including recycled containers ..."

Deposit legislation is helping the refillable bottle make a comeback. In 1990 refillable bottles made up over 16% of packaged beer sales in the nine states requiring a minimum 5 cent deposit on beer and soda containers, compared to less than 4% in non-deposit states. The Rainier Brewing Company began refilling bottles shortly after the first bottle law, established in Oregon in 1971. The overall cost of their refilling process included investments in washing equipment, extra personnel, electronic eyes for post-wash cycle inspection, and thicker bottles. The company claims that refilling is quite profitable.

Lochmead Dairy is a family-owned business in Junction City, Oregon. The dairy owns the farm, the bottles and the stores. The 31 Dari Mart stores in Creswell, Albany and Eugene distribute approximately 300,000 reusable half gallon milk bottles per year. Out of this about 4000 bottles are damaged or lost; the rest keep coming back. Before 1980 the dairy used glass bottles for their milk. However, after 1979 glass bottles became harder to find and more expensive. After experimenting with several different kinds of plastic and paper containers they started using a high density plastic bottle marketed by GE plastics made of Lexan resin. Some of the bottles the dairy uses have withstood close to 100 trips. The practice of refilling has proven especially profitable for Lochmead, since they transport empty returnables back to the dairy at little extra cost, and the uniform empties are easily stacked at Dari Mart stores in their original delivery cases. The 40 cent bottle deposit helps build a returning clientele.

Castle Creamery in Hayward, California still uses special thick glass milk bottles, for which they require a $1 deposit. The return rate is about 97% on the half-gallon bottles, but only 80-85% on the traditional quart bottles, since many people keep them for nostalgia's sake. One advantage glass has over plastic bottles is flavor heavily reused plastic bottles retain flavors and odors, and super-high temperature sterilization would melt the bottle. Plastics eventually stink. Since glass is a superior barrier the product lasts longer and tastes better. Castle creamery containers last on average 30 trips, but at the end of their lives they can be made into a bottle again. Worn-out plastic bottles cannot easily be made into another container, so they are chopped up and used as various fillers. The plastics industry coined the oxymoron "linear recycling" to label the limits of their reprocessing.

Genesis Juice in Eugene, Oregon is a 15 year-old worker-owned cooperative specializing in organic juice. This popular co-op squeezes everything from oranges and carrots to beets and wheat grass into bottles that carry a 20-cent deposit no matter what the size ( 8oz, 16oz, 1qt, or gallon). When the bottles are returned to their place of purchase, they are picked up by Genesis and transported back to the cooperative for washing and sanitation, not unlike the Lochmead dairy process.

But the bottles are not uniform in size or style. Genesis uses glass containers that would otherwise be broken up into cullet for recycling, and will fill any used bottle that fits their specifications for volume and lid size. Many of these bottles are generously gathered by workers at a local non-profit recycling program, BRING, which brings in around two tons of used glass a week.

Genesis uses an old 5-wide bottle washer built to clean a wide variety of containers. It can wash over 1500 in one day. According to Bill Weigand, the cooperative's coordinator, at first the glass was washed in a triple stainless steel sink, using sundry devices to clean the crevasses of the used bottles. The new mechanical washer became necessary when production increased to around 160 cases of bottles a week. Today Genesis Juice supplies many natural food stores, local Safeway supermarkets, convenience stores and delis. Genesis doesn't just promote a closed loop process of refilling, it actively saves bottles from the energy-intensive process of recycling.

Stewart's Dairy of Saratoga, New York has actively promoted reuse since 1981 by selling all of its milk, soft drinks, and beer in refillable containers at its 186 locations up and down the east coast. Many retail outlets complain about returnables, but chains such as this one don't note any problems: they opened 14 new stores just last year. Stewart's milk comes in a Lexan plastic container similar to Lochmead Dairy's. Its soft drinks and beer are sold in refillable glass containers. Confident with its success in the retail market, Stewart's has extended its refillable bottle policy to include school milk programs. Last year Stewart's serviced 35 different schools in New York with refillable Lexan half-pint bottles. Stewart's executives say that the initial cost per bottle is higher than coated-paper containers, but by the end of their life-cycle they are a mere half a cent each. The bottles are eliminating trash disposal costs for the 700,000 paper cartons that have been thrown away annually by the Saratoga Springs school district. Stewart's invested $100,000 for equipment to handle the new bottles including a D&L manufactured bottle washer and an inspection/conveyor system. According to GE Plastics, next year 45 more school districts will adopt half-pint refillables in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington.

Rising Moon Ravioli of Eugene begins its second year of operation with much success. The company sells both a peanut curry sauce and a red sauce in refillable 16oz former mayonnaise jars. The operation is run out of a home and is quite small, so they clean their used containers without the aid of a mechanical bottle washer. Each of the jars carries a 25 cent deposit, resulting in a rather impressive number of returns. They are not yet using returnable containers for their frozen ravioli, their primary product. While there are no legal restrictions, many small ecology-minded businesses have difficulty finding standard containers for solid foods.

The older and the less affluent parts of the world are well ahead of the United States in efficient and careful use of materials. In New Brunswick, Canada, Premier Frank Mckenna introduced a tough new law last year that will penalize consumers who buy recyclable drink containers instead of refillable ones. Deposits are collected on all containers, and consumers receive a full (100%) deposit refund for refillables but only a partial refund (50%) for non-refillables. The money from the non-refillable consumer funds anti-litter campaigns.

Prince Edward Island requires beer and soft drinks to be sold only in refillable bottles. Additionally, the Island is implementing deposit systems for wine and liquor containers.

Great Britain still refills nearly 100% of its milk bottles, including small glass bottles for school children. Reuse in England has not been limited to beverage containers. The Body Shop, a UK-based natural cosmetics company with stores world-wide, dispenses its shampoos and conditioners in returnable deposit containers.

In Germany 72% of all carbonated beverages must be sold in refillable bottles. Enacted in 1991, this law will increase the percentage each year so that by the year 2000, 81% of Germany's beverages will be packaged in refillables. Both Coca-cola and Pepsi have been successful in Germany marketing their soft drinks in refillable 1.5 liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. These bottles are made from the same material as 2 liter bottles in the United States, except a bit thicker to withstand the washing. The PET bottles can hold together for about 25 refillings, fewer than glass bottles, and many fewer than its plastic cousin Lexan.

In Switzerland, the highly popular, fine-quality yogurt sold by Toni's Yogurt uses a returnable and refillable package. Toni's comes in a high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic container which can be reused several times. After use, the container is placed on designated wash-racks outside any of Toni's numerous stores. Toni's offers us a rare example of a reusable solid food container.

Denmark may be the most zealous country in promoting reusable packaging. In 1981 Danish law required all beer and soft drinks to be sold in refillable bottles bearing a mandatory deposit. The law bans metal cans and plastic bottles. This was probably motivated by the difficulty in recycling plastics and the glut in scrap metal. Containers, by law, must be standardized in order to make the return system and bottle washing run more smoothly. Reports indicate that approximately 99% of containers in Denmark are returned and refilled.

As might be expected, in the world's poorer countries refilling is still most common. For example, in Mexico 70% of the soft drinks are sold in refillable containers, as well as over 80% of the beer.

Reusables should have a place in any healthy economy, planned or not, since they create jobs while conserving resources. In former socialist countries there are many who, economic ideology aside, realize that they are starting to lose the existing reusable system. In Leipzig, in former East Germany, the unification led to a near overnight increase in garbage and litter of up to 50%, one of the most visible by-products of the new market economy. In frustration the Leipzig City Council passed a law requiring food and beverages sold on public property be packaged in reusable containers. The refillable revolution continues...


Above: Paul Ollswang's sketch: a London milk-bottle pram circa 1925. Below: Modern bottle-washing machine for Lochmead Dairy's uniform half-gallon Lexan jugs.

Below: Lesly Cormier (left) and Jen St. Hilaire will lead this short tour of bottle-washing at the Genesis Juice worker's cooperative, beginning with their glass sterilizing machine, Big Bertha ("She makes me deaf, but I love her!" -- Paul Ollswang).

Below: After unpacking the dirty bottles, Jen puts them on Bertha's feeder, which can give a ride to containers of many sizes. They come out near a bright light, so Jen can check for spots. Bertha must be stopped occasionally to remove pulped labels and juice guck.

Below: Sometimes Bertha needs a pull to get her going again. Lesly examines Bertha's work to see if anything was missed. She then uses a wooden chopstick, which gets better at the job as it wears down, to clean out the crevices. The bottle is of course then sterilized again.

Refill it yourself!

Below: Sundance Natural Foods in Eugene, Oregon provides used, clean jars for their bulk customers at a reasonable price. These jars and bottles come from The Glass Station, a life-long effort of refillables activist Alice Soderwall.

Below: The collection at the Glass Station. Thousands of jars have been washed, sorted and re-used through this neighborhood project now generously housed in Sundance's Mercantile store. [2014 note: this project is now closed.]

Below: At the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, Germany, several hundred personal mugs are locked up in racks for regular patrons to remove themselves. Unlocked systems like this for beer and coffee mugs can be found around the world.