issue 157 | March 1986
The bottle bank con trick
How do you feel when dropping the relics of that Beaujolais in the bottle bank? Virtuous; doing your bit to conserve planet earth's dwindling resources? Wistful; surely those elegant shapes needn't be smashed? Or seething about one of the slickest con tricks for which the British public has ever fallen?
Leeds, with its Save Waste and Prosper (SWAP) scheme that last year raised nearly £30,000 ($43,000), is Britain's leading recycling city. Provision of a recycling centre is now a condition for all major supermarket applications, and the tonnage of salvage has grown steadily during the past eight years. At the heart of a recycling centre is the bottle bank, with the name of the Glass Manufacturers' Federation blazoned on the side. The glass is trucked to their factories, melted and made into new bottles. SWAP receives money for local charities. A splendid example of the community at work. Or is it? I don't think so, I believe bottle banks are of limited value, deceive the public and obstruct an important step towards achieving a 'non-waste' society, They contrast badly with developments in Europe and the US, and with the informal and genuinely valuable recycling carried out by millions of the very poor in the Third World. First, the truth about the bottle banks,
Ten years ago the British glass manufacturers hated 'cullet' (broken glass) in their furnaces. Too much, they said, and the fizzy pop bottles might explode in your face. Then across the Atlantic, the State of Oregon, appalled by the litter in its lovely countryside and by children's feet slashed by glass fragments on beaches, passed a 'bottle bill': a law that all beverage containers should carry a deposit and be returnable. Although the results have been the subject of controversy, with conflicting claims of jobs lost and gained, environment improved or company profits wrecked, New Jersey, Minnesota and Wisconsin followed suit. And in 1983 the 'Empire State' of New York - motivated by a king-size headache over the mountain of garbage discarded by 18 million citizens and a massive industrial economy - did likewise. Oregon, the 'Green State', might be dismissed as cranky but not New York. There was alarm in bottle makers' board rooms. Returnables might create jobs but reduced demand would puncture the ballooning profits of the glass industry,
The glass makers' response: 'If you can't beat them, lead them.' They would become the pacesetters in a nationwide recycling campaign - the good guys. No more embarrassing incidents like Friends of the Earth dumping thousands of bottles on the doorstep of Sch*****'s prestigious West End headquarters. Granted it needed public relations. But the hard work would be done by municipal councils, voluntary groups and the shoppers. It worked. Soon the pressure was off.
There were some dissenting voices. The milkmen continued to reuse each bottle dozens of times, while Barrs, a Northern firm beloved by schoolchildren for creating Tizer, stuck doggedly to the multi-trip bottle for sale at the corner shop. Economists proved that, given the high-energy consumption of bottle making, multi-trip returnables were in the national interest. But such sane voices were shouted down by the glass industry's publicity machine.
That the bottle banks are little more than cosmetic is seen by the results. After seven years Leeds has never managed to collect more than 2,000 tons of glass annually: a pathetic five bottles a year from everyone in the city. How many bottles do you throw away in a year? A hundred? Two hundred? Possibly far more, Nor do the glass makers pay enough to really motivate recycling. SWAP gets between £18 ($25) and £25 ($35) per ton from bottle bank glass, but pays nearly £9 ($12) of this on transport.
Not all countries imitate Britain's short-sighted glass recycling policies. In Holland 53 per cent of glass container consumption is recycled; in Switzerland it is 43 per cent. In one area of Paris eighty bins designed to avoid breakages are part of an attempt to reuse 12,000 tons of bottles annually. In contrast to the Iron Age smash-it-and-lug-it technology of the bottle bank, trucks with specially designed cranes and bulk containers gently transfer the bins' contents to a modern factory where photodiodes measure the size and shape of 24,000 bottles an hour. A micro-computer then directs conveyors to feed Bordeaux bottles into one container, Bourguignonnes to another and Champenoises to a third. This one plant has been designed to put 20 million bottles a year back into circulation. So much for the glass makers argument that re-used bottles are inferior.
It's a different picture in the Philippines. Leonora is a bottle collector and spends the day combing the streets uttering her harsh cry 'Jarrebotte' or Any bottles for sale?. She pays a peso (seven US cents) for four bottles. Although her husband died of tuberculosis three years ago, Leonora does not work alone. Her sons Ernesto and Carlos take a cart each day through the streets of Tondo, the low-income waterfront district of Manila where they live. Leonora worries about the lads working: she would prefer they went to school but the family's earnings are insufficient and would drop further if the boys stopped collecting.
The bottles do not bring in enough even now. But fortunately Leonora has a friend in Lina Astilla, a small scrap dealer famous for 'Lina's Junkshop'. It is Lina who lends Leonora the carts and advances a little cash when Leonora runs short. Some 30 collectors beside Leonora depend on the Junkshop for a living; not all are 'jarrebottes', some are scavengers on the city garbage dumps. Few can earn more than a dollar a day.
In the Junkshop sorters separate the bottles which can be sold to the soft drinks firms and the local fish sauce industry. In the street other women augment the family income by bottle-washing. Only breakages go into the cullet bin; to be collected weekly by Victoria Cruz, a vigorous merchant who pays $12 a ton. At the San Miguel factory, the largest glass plant in the Philippines, the cullet is again sorted. San Miguel, also the country's largest brewery, gobbles 300 tons of glass a day and would happily use 100 per cent cullet, unaware that British firms have pronounced this impossible.
Recycling is good for the country too. As the extravaganzas of the Marcos regime bring the economy closer to bankruptcy, many sources of energy and raw materials become unobtainable. Locally collected recyclables however demand no foreign exchange and will not be blocked because of tough decisions by the IMF or the whims of the US Congress.
Glass recycling in the Philippines is based on the hundreds of 'jarrebotte' collectors, the junk shops and the specialist merchants. Powered by the desperation of need, glass recycling runs smoothly. Britain's recycling, by contrast, is inadequate, spasmodic and often counter-productive. The professionals insist Britain wants nothing like the Philippines situation and, regarding the pitiful wages, the gruelling work of begging with street carts and the dangerous working condition, no-one would disagree. The British public, however, are enthusiastic about recycling: they rejoice in bottle banks and persistently start new voluntary recycling and employment schemes. Clearly if earnings and working conditions can be made good enough, the alleged indignity of recycling exists only in the minds of planners and civil servants.
When we recycled glass at Oxfam's Wastesaver Centre in the 1970s, with the help of a generous grant from the Glass Manufacturers Federation, there were no difficulties in recruiting sorters. Plenty of people were happy with the job. The scheme failed because there were not enough deposit bottles and the price paid by glass firms for cullet was too low. If all beverage containers carried deposits, the economy and its unemployed could benefit from self-financing recycling schemes which, helped by capital investment, the micro-processor and the Health and Safety at Work Act, could avoid the nasty aspects of Philippine recycling. A pipedream? No, because of two developments.
EEC Directive 85/339 on recycling of packaging finally emerged last summer. Member states are required to produce by January 1987 programmes for re-use of packaging and particularly beverage containers. If the government, the supermarkets firms, the bottle makers and the municipal waste specialists were united on the issue of job creation, conservation and environmental cleanliness, such a plan could seed a nationwide recycling policy like the one adopted in 1940 when a blockaded Britain was facing the Fascist advance. Unemployment, today's enemy, may be different but the need is just as great.
Nor are the glass makers so opposed to the idea of recycling any more. Glass is itself threatened by the lightweight plastic bottle (made from polyester, the material in your blouse or tie) which are severely single-trip. Some bottle makers like Rockware are responding by themselves making plastic bottles. The rest are wondering whether their old fear - the bottle bill that insists on reusable glass containers may not protect them from the new plastic bottle.
What about the public? Should we stop using the bottle banks because we have been cheated, or carry on because bad recycling is better than none at all? Will continued patronage of the banks, mediocre though it is, enable the British government to delude the EEC that there is already a realistic national container recycling policy? There is no right answer. But one thing is certain. The government needs to respond to the EEC with a genuine policy of sorting and re-using beverage containers to save energy, conserve materials, reduce dumping and create jobs. And for that matter so does every other affluent nation in our polluted and energy-profligate world
An engineer who started Oxfam's Wastesaver scheme, Jon Volger is a consultant on recycling and waste management. His books have included Jobs from Junk - How to create employment and tidy up derelict cars, Intermediate Technology 1983, and Recycling for Change - a handbook for fundraising by recycling, Christian Aid 1985.
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