Nearly 30 years ago, the nation of Denmark decided to take an approach to beer and soft drinks that, even today, many would find remarkable. Order number 397 issued by the Danish government took a heavy hand in shaping the bottled beverage industry: Only certain types of containers could contain beverages. As metal and plastic recycling methods at that time were not economically viable, glass became the standard of the bottling companies. The interesting fact, though, is not that these bottles were mandated to be recycled, but that it was declared that only refillable containers were permitted. Unlike the U.S., where can and bottle recycling has adopted slowly, the good people of Denmark have been returning thick, infinitely reusable glass bottles to their local retailer for recycling. Under state mandate, only bottles that could be sanitized and refilled by beverage makers could be sold. Imagine Coca-Cola simply taking our old containers, washing them out, refilling them and then sending them off to be restocked at the local grocery store. It’s a system that seems all too strange to Americans. According to a report by the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), the long-term analysis of using refillable bottles, rather than single-use of “one-way” bottles, illustrates a significant cost savings. For example, though a one-way container is cheaper initially (0.069 Euro, or about 10¢ U.S.) compared to a refillable container (0.133 Euro, or 19¢ U.S.), it simply takes one refill to realize cost savings. Filling a second one-way bottle is an additional 0.069 Euro, whereas taking the same reusable bottle and simply refilling it splits the cost in half, making the cost per filling now 0.067 Euro. After 20 such fillings, the one-way containers cost 0.069 x 20 (1.38 Euro, or $1.94) whereas a refillable bottle is 1/20 the original cost of that bottle (0.007 Euro, or less than 1¢ U.S.). To see an easy-to read graph that illustrates this point, be sure to check out GRRN’s report linked above. So, why doesn’t the U.S. adopt a similar policy? After all, recycling rates in Denmark and other European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, hover around 95%. In fact, according to this TED Case Study, “Ninety-nine percent of the approved bottles were returned and some of them were re-used up to 30 times.” But alas, here in the good old United States of America, this level of recycling might not be reached since the means to getting these results were largely the part of heavy governmental policy. Not only did the national legislation require that only refillable bottles are to be used by manufacturers, but an additional packaging tax was also added. Since this tax applied to each container once, one-way containers were hit with this additional cost on every can. Refillable bottles, on the other hand, only had this tax apply to the original filling and therefore lessened over time the more the bottle was reused. Simply put, the strong emphasis on corporate freedoms most likely wouldn’t allow strong legislation such as this to take place within the U.S. It’s a pity really, since it typically takes accidents or disasters to occur before strong legislative action like that in Denmark shapes a market for the betterment of health, safety and the environment.
Denmark’s Glass Bottle Recycling Success
The sanitize-and-reuse policy in Denmark has seen recycling rates skyrocket to near 100%. Can it be done in the U.S.?