About this previous post on glass recycling — some astute readers noticed that by focusing on recycling, I’d ignored more important priorities: reducing the use of packaging, and reusing glass bottles where practical.

That’s a fair enough critique. But it did make me wonder: What happened, exactly, to the practice of reusing glass bottles? I can still remember drinking Coke from reusable bottles as a kid, but I rarely see that anymore. How come? And, more to the point, how would a system of reusable glass bottles stack up against recyclable glass and plastic containers?

On the first question — what happened to reusable bottles? — there’s this recent article summing up the situation nicely. In a nutshell:

  • Beverage marketers prefer customized bottles, with a unique shape and feel for each brand; but a reusable bottle system is most cost-effective if all bottles are interchangeable.
  • Food stores don’t like to take back bottles. It’s an administrative hassle and takes up time and space they’d prefer to use for other purposes.
  • Consumers don’t like to return bottles. Given the option, they generally prefer to recycle.
  • Consolidation in the bottling industry has increased the distance that reusable bottles have to be shipped, which simultaneously increases the costs and decreases the environmental bennies of reusables.

Obviously, those barriers aren’t insurmountable. But they also don’t seem uniquely characteristic of North American consumer culture. Though Japan’s economy is far more energy-efficient than ours, its reusable bottle system, which used to be extremely effective, now seems to be falling by the wayside. (Sigh.)

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Some of the same forces are at play in Japan as in the U.S. — beverage makers are introducing customized shapes and sizes for many drinks. But perhaps just as importantly, Japan’s beverage delivery services — which would pick up empty bottles at the same time they delivered new ones — have declined, with more people getting their drinks from supermarkets. The decline of reusable bottles is just a side-effect of other economic and social forces.

Of course, there are public policies that could stimulate a resurgence of reusable bottles — mandatory bottle deposits, requirements that stores accept reusable bottles, perhaps seed money for local bottlers to restart the reusable bottle system. An uphill battle, to be sure — but it could have its benefits.

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Then again, before we consider that sort of thing, we should take a careful look at the possible hidden costs of reinstating a returnable bottle system. Consumers might avoid reusables; unreturned and broken bottles can eat into the energy savings of a reusable bottle system; it’s even conceivable that a reusable bottle system could generate extra car trips, reducing the net-energy benefits.

Of course, reusable bottles could still save energy, reduce waste, and create local jobs, compared with glass recycling, or even with lightweight recyclable plastics. But I think we’d owe ourselves a careful accounting of just what these benefits might be before spending all the political capital needed to reboot the reusable bottle industry.