Monday, January 16, 2006

Returnable Soda Bottles

Growing I remember one feature that practically every grocery store shared in common. Every one of them had a bin (usually more than one) for soda bottles returned for their deposit. In those days the bottles were made of glass and they were recycled. When one was finished with a carton of soda, he or she would simply return the bottles to the grocery store, who would then send them off to the bottlers to be reused. When I was really young I think one received a nickel per bottle for the deposit. I think later this may have risen to a dime. Of course, glass soda bottles seem to be a thing of the past. They have long since been replaced by non-returnable plastic bottles and aluminium cans.

Before they gradually fell out of use, glass soda bottles had a long history. In the early days soda generally had to be served by the fountain for lack of any satisfactory way of storing it in bottles. This changed as the 19th century passed on. In 1857 Henry Putman invented a wire clamp retainer for bottles stoppered with corks. This was followed by various improvements until 1879 when Chicago bottler Charles G. Hutchinson developed a spring-type internal bottle that became the most common means of sealing soda bottles. It was Hutchinson's invention that gave soda one of its names--when a Hutchinson bottle was opened, it made an audible "pop."

It was late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century that two advancements occurred which would revolutionise the bottling industry. The first was machine shop operator William Painter's invention of the crown-cork bottle seal in 1891. It very swiftly replaced the Hutchinson method of sealing bottles and became the industry standard for the remainder of the history of the glass soda bottle. The second advancement was Michael J. Owens' invention of the automatic glass bottle blowing machine. This allowed companies to mass produce glass bottles on a scale unmatched before. It was probably inevitable that soda would be bottled.

Indeed, even as Asa Candler was developing Coca-Cola, soda was being sold in bottles, even though it often went bad . Coca-Cola itself was put into bottles as early as 1888. This early bottling of the Real Thing stopped when Asa Candler felt the results were less than satisfactory. By 1899, however, with the invention of the crown cork bottle seal, soda could easily be bottled without any undesirable results. Perhaps because of this, it was in that year that two Chattanooga lawyers, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, approached Asa Candler about bottling Coca-Cola. Sceptical at first, Candler gave them the bottling rights.

From the earliest days in which bottling soda became practical, the bottles were returnable. Besides being environmentally sound, this setup made plain business sense. By reusing bottles, the soda bottlers kept costs down in that they had to manufacture fewer new bottles. It must also be pointed out that this was not unique to the soda industry. Milk and even beer was sold in returnable bottles which could be returned for a deposit.

Inevitably, various brands of soda would develop their own unique designs in bottles. By far the most famous of these designs is the hobbleskirt or contour Coca-Cola bottle. The design was developed by machinist Earl Dean of Indiana, who thought he was designing the bottle after a cola leaf. Turned to the wrong page of the encyclopedia, he actually used a cacao leaf to develop the bottle's design! Other soda companies would develop their own unique bottle designs. Both Double Cola and Pepsi used a swirl design on their bottles. Many of the root beer makers made bottles that looked like, well, beer bottles...

From the beginning there were problems with the returnable bottle. Quite simply, people weren't always inclined to return the empties. As late as 1933 Coca-Cola felt the need to distribute coupons for a free six pack to grocers to be given to every customer who returned empties. Apparently many did not like the inconvenience of having return bottles. Despite this, it would be some time before non-returnable bottles and cans would replace the returnable bottle.

It was in 1935 that Owens-Illnois introduced the non-returnable bottle. It was embraced immediately by beer manufacturers, although soda makers were a bit more hesitant. It was not until 1964 that Pepsi Cola announced it was developing a non-returnable bottle. Other soda makers would eventually follow suit. With environmental awareness growing in the Sixties, the nonreturnable bottles were not a hit with everyone. In 1970 protestors dumped a number of nonreturnable bottles in front of Coke's headquarters in Atlanta. The early Seventies would also see the first bottle deposit legislation introduced in many states.

Despite the environmental concerns, it would seem the nonreturnable bottle was here to stay. The earliest bottles were made of glass, but in 1970 soda would be sold in plastic bottles for the first time. By 1978 even Coca-Cola would be available in plastic. Nineteen seventy-three would see the development of the Polyethylene Terephthalate or "PET" bottle. This would become the industry standard still used today. As time wore on, both returnable and nonreturnable glass bottles would be replaced by the nonreturnable plastic bottles.

Of course, the returnable glass bottle did not just meet with competiton from nonreturnable bottles. There was also the can. Cans were considered for use with soda as early as 1930, although the very nature of soda presented problems. For one thing, the cans had to be strong enough to handle the pressures created by carbonated drinks. For another, the acidic nature of many soft drinks could result in dissolving steel or tin into the drink. This would give any soda sold in cans a very short shelf life. Regardless, by 1938 Cliquot Club ginger ale was sold in cans. Problems with leakage and the flavour put an end to sales. Coca-Cola tested selling Coke in cans in 1940, although it would be 1955 before they would regularly start selling the drink in cans and then only overseas. On the other hand, Pepsi-Cola started selling sodas in cans as early as 1948. Of the major cola manufacturers, however, it was Royal Crown who embraced the can wholeheartedly. With their success, Coke and Pepsi followed suit. By 1961 canned soft drinks were even/ being sold in vending machines. The success of the can would be cemented in 1963 when Reynolds Metals introduced the aluminium can. More simply and cheaply made, it became the industry standard.

Despite the advent of the nonreturnable bottle and canned soda, returnables did not disappear overnight. Instead, it seems to me that they gradually fell out of use. Gradually shoppers decided they preferred the convenience of nonreturnable bottles and cans to the returnable bottles which they would have had to pack back to the grocery store. Grocers also found that they preferred not having to deal with the returnable bottles. Without them there would be no need of large bins that took up space. As the Eighties progressed, the nonreturnable bottles gradually disappeared from store shelves until they simply were no more.

Personally, I miss the old returnable soda bottles. First, it seems to me that they were more environmentally sound than disposable plastic bottles. Many municipalities and states do not have bottle deposit laws and, as a result, plastic bottles usually find their way into landfills rather than recycling centres. Aluminium cans are a bit more environmentally sound, in that there are scrap metal dealers and recycling centres that pay for them. Quite simply, without the sort of encouragement that the depost on returnable bottles offered, I think many people will simply toss their old soda containers in the trash.

Second, I have always thought that soda tasted better in glass. Perhaps this simply my imagination, but to me Coke, Dr. Pepper, and even 7-Up tastes differently when in it is in plastic or aluminium. Glass would then be a preferable container for soft drinks as far as I am concerned. Finally, I must admit that from an aesthetic point of view, the glass bottles were more appealing. True, Coca-Cola has developed a plastic version of its classic contour bottle, but it just doesn't seem to look as good to me as the old glass bottles.

At any rate, I don't think nonreturnable glass bottles are going to return any time soon. For better or worse, they are a thing of the past. Like many things they have given way to the so-called convenience of plastic and aluminium. I seriously doubt people any time soon are going to decide that they once more want to lug a carton of glass bottles to the grocery store in order to receive the deposit upon them.


Gavin MacQueen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin MacQueen said...

Actually, Earl R. Dean's contour bottle design was influenced by the cocoa pod, not the cola leaf. Earl R. Dean did not know what Coca-Cola was made of. The cola bean and the cola leaf was not found in the encyclopedia; the cocoa pod was. When he discovered it, he was influenced by it appearance. Never did he believe that the cocoa pod was an ingredient of Coca-Cola.

ganjaman said...

I have seen no one addressing the fact that there was a deposit on the bottle that you received back when the bottle was returned. As I remember it was one penny in the 1940s and went to two cents in the fifties. All the articles address the state laws for bottle deposits that started in the 70s but not the manufacturers deposit requirements earlier.