Plastic bottles and cans took over glass bottles as the drink holder of choice for beverage distributors in the late '50s. 
Plastic bottles and cans took over glass bottles as the drink holder of choice for beverage distributors in the late '50s.  - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

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.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.