Eco-tip: Reusable glass bottles are gone, but alternatives have advantages
Special to Ventura County Star
Stan Wilson, of Ventura, recently wrote to me, “I don’t understand why we can’t just go back to reusable glass bottles. As a teenager I worked as a stock boy in a grocery store. I don’t remember there being any bottled water back then, but beer and sodas came in glass bottles that were delivered in wooden cases. When a shipment came in, the empty bottles, brought back by customers directly to the store, were put into the cases to be returned to the distributer in the same truck that delivered the full ones. The bottles were washed and refilled. The same thing with milk.”
What happened to reusable glass bottles? Labor and transportation costs rose, styles of bottles diversified, the cost to manufacture single-use bottles dropped, and inexpensive plastic gained market share. Eventually, bottle washing facilities became too spread apart to justify either the economic or the environmental costs of trucking empty bottles between collection sites, washing facilities, bottling plants, and distribution centers.
Glass can be beautiful, and perhaps because glass is derived from domestically sourced sand, soda ash, and limestone, it seems more natural than petroleum-based plastic bottles. Understandably, many people, like Wilson, miss reusable glass bottles. The final lot of reusable Coke bottles to roll off an assembly line in the United States, manufactured in Winona, Minnesota, were sold online in 2012 for $20 each, with the last bottle fetching $2,000 at auction, according to an October 10, 2012, article in the Huffington Post. It is hard to imagine the last petroleum-based bottle’s economic value will similarly reflect such nostalgic affection. T
he Glass Packaging Institute, a glass industry trade group, boasts on its website, “Glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity.” According to the U.S. EPA, using 2018 data, 33.1% of all glass food and beverage containers are recycled, and the recycling rate is over 63% in states, like California, with deposit laws for bottles.
Glass has a lot going for it, but plastic is lightweight and unbreakable, and the transition from reusable glass to single-use glass and eventually to plastic for most beverages, has not been entirely bad for the environment.
A 2019 study by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality called into question some widely held assumptions about the lifecycle environmental costs of glass versus other packaging. Commenting on the study in Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, Edward Humes, in a June 26, 2019, article, noted the study considered each packaging option’s “overall harm when it comes to climate, water conservation, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, smog, acidification, or other forms of pollution and depletion.” Even some difficult-to-recycle containers have lower impacts than regular recyclable containers. For example, milk in an aseptic box scores better than milk in glass, partly because far more milk can be transported per truck when milk is packaged in stackable rectangles, and also because milk in aseptic packaging does not have to be refrigerated.
However, as Scott DeFife, President of the Glass Packaging Institute, pointed out to me by email, a flaw of life cycle analysis studies is they “do not take into account the impact of mismanaged waste.” Plastic litter, transported by wind and water, poses environmental problems.
Every container has environmental impacts, so Stan Wilson’s original thought is correct. At least reusable bottles reduce the number of containers manufactured.
However, the major modern success in bottle reuse takes a different track. Some people carry with them, or keep at work, bottles they re-fill with filtered water, or just with good old-fashioned tap water. Drinking water delivered by pipe has fewer impacts than drinking a product made from water and trucked to your local supermarket. Drinking it from a refillable container or a reusable cup makes it an even better choice.
David Goldstein, an Environmental Analyst with Ventura County Public Works, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.