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How the humble glass bottle lost its appeal

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It’s Earth Day, but before we talk about recycling glass, Carl Zimring, author of the book, “Cash for Your Trash,” suggests we start here: “The first question to ask is, ‘how much glass is being produced to be disposed of as a product?'”

Way back when, glass wasn’t so much recycled as it was reused, like with bottled milk.

“So that when you were done with the bottle, you would give it back to the dairy, which would wash it and then fill it with more milk,” he says. Zimring says in the late 50s, beverage distributors started using bottles that were designed to be used once. Glass bottles were heavy, expensive, and expensive to transport. And they broke. So, Coke in plastic bottles and beer in cans took over.

“And that was absolutely deliberate to change the responsibility from the producer to the consumer,” he says.

Zimring says manufacturers from that point on had no incentive to care about what happened to glass once it left their distributors. Ten states enacted deposit laws by 1986, but he says the beverage industry lobbied hard against more. Only Hawaii has enacted a deposit law since.

Passing the buck — or in this case, the bottle — is just how manufacturers like it, according to Michael Munger, who teaches political science and economics at Duke.

“As soon as they make something, the packaging as well as the product belongs to someone else,” Munger says.

Even with recycling, that someone else often turns out to be the landfill.


Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described bottle-deposit legislation. Ten states adopted deposit laws in the 1970s and 1980s. Only one additional state, Hawaii, has enacted a law since 1986. The text has been corrected.

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