Over the next 10 days the American bottling industry will uncork a staggeringly high advertising budget to persuade D.C. voters of their tag line that Initiative 28 -- the bottle bill -- "makes a bigger mess than it cleans up."
Ironically, that slogan comes from the same people who invented the returnable bottle. In spite of their advertising, voters know little about the content of Initiative 28 and even less about the industry that fostered -- but now maligns -- returnables. If their paid TV spots are any indication, the "Clean Capital City Committee" prefers to keep things that way.
To this native of Oregon, the state that pioneered the bottle bill, anti-28 hyperbole and hyperventilation respirit the same old gas in a new disposable bottle. When Oregon approved its 1972 bottle law, beverage barons foresaw jeremiads of economic disruption and convenience-store chaos crippling that state. Those accusations flopped -- because memories of the successful 1950s returnable bottle were far too fresh in our minds. Oregonians responded with spit-in-the-dirt derision at suggestions that "forced" deposits had inexorably burdened their consumer lives. And we recalled the days of litter-free neighborhoods, parks and streams.
A 1980 Stanford University Environmental Law Society analysis of the beverage industry showed that returnable containers made up 98 percent of the soft-drink market a generation ago. That impressive percentage held steady during the 1940s and 1950s. And while it may surprise some voters, the beverage industry did not wither from the "forced" 2-cent deposits of that era; on the contrary, it thrived. Bottlers saved costs by refilling containers, and consumers enjoyed savings earned through returnable deposits.
Ultimately, the glass and aluminum industries smothered this thrifty custom. Glass manufacturers were the first to move. They knew all too well that every returnable bottle displaced 20 throwaway glass containers. In 1959, the glass industry, to break America's recycling habit, introduced the short-necked "Handy No-Return Bottle." That same year, the Glass Container Manufacturing Institute financed Lucky Lager beer to market experimentally the "stubby" at a price 3 cents per six-pack below the going rate for beer. The effort met with spectacular success.
At the same time, a second industry discovered an interest in promoting one-way containers. In the 1960s, chain supermarkets such as Safeway and Giant supplanted neighborhood grocery stores. An important element in the success of those supermarkets is the ratio of sales space to storage space. Because increased product variety results in greater sales, supermarkets consistently seek to maximize this ratio. The Stanford analysis concluded that "returnable containers, because they require additional storage space, simply did not fit this supermarketing scheme, and large food retailing firms opposed them from the outset." Most supermarkets subsequently adopted disposable containers for their house brands. Many dropped returnable beer brands altogether, providing irresistible incentive for beverage companies to deemphasize returnables. That incentive soon spread to soft drinks.
While those decisions boosted profits for glass and aluminum manufacturers, they benefited no one else. When supermarkets reduced their storage costs, they dumped a new one -- that of finding landfills for disposable containers -- onto taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the throwaway hastened the demise of one of America's last small-town industries, the locally operated and owned bottler. Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Pabst and other giants soon discovered that throwaways enabled them to undercut local breweries, which lacked capital to convert to disposables. Most of these smaller concerns went out of business. According to the late GOP governor Tom McCall of Oregon, the first public official to advocate a national bottle bill, the number of small breweries declined from 184 to 55 between 1958 and 1974. Between 1958 and 1974, 60 percent of soft-drink bottlers were driven to the wall, despite an increase in consumption of 276 percent. More than 34,000 beverage jobs were lost during the industry shakedown over throwaway bottles.
The litter lobby does not dwell on that history, but voters should. How packaging tycoons destroyed the efficient, litter-free returnable bottle system unsheathes the specious arguments that they now make to oppose Initiative 28. And the misrepresentations do not stop there. The Clean Capital City Committee is distributing a fact sheet titled "Forced Deposit Laws: A Threat to Public Health." This two-page leaflet cites an Oregon State University study showing how in Oregon "the most serious threat to public health 'involved pest and rodent attraction and infestation of food products in backroom storage areas.' " The leaflet quotes the OSU study as concluding that "odors emitted from returned beverage containers attracted flies and rodents."
Maybe some OSU professors wrote that. But when questioned by this journalist, no one at the Clean Capital City Committee knew who they were. Inquiries at the OSU food science and entomology departments and at the faculty research office revealed no record of the study.
When the forefathers of the anti-Initiative 28 campaign rubbed out returnable bottles 25 years ago, they made no pretense of doing taxpayers any favor. Perhaps they already knew that throwaways would create "a bigger mess than it cleans up." -- Mark Kirchmeier is a free-lance journalist.