Why do glass bottles have to be “recycled”?

184 views

Why can’t companies just sanitize and refill them?

In: Other

Some do – beer bottles for instance are reused that way. But there are a lot of those. For the most part, there are small numbers of a lot of different bottles scattered across the country, and collecting, sorting, and then returning those to the specific places that use them is not economically viable. Easier and cheaper to melt them down and make new stuff.

You also have to consider how many of them end up broken before they get back to an actual recycling place (or the manufacturer if you want to insist on reusing them). You can’t do anything with a broken bottle besides melt it down and start over.

They can be but it only works at a local scale. In college, the store near my house sold milk and juice in heavy glass bottles that you could return to the store. There was a deposit of 50 cents on each bottle to encourage returns. The local dairy would pick up the empties when they delivered new milk, wash them, and refill them.

In order to be reusable, a glass bottle has to be thick enough to survive being banged around with other bottles and heat sterilized many times, so they’re pretty heavy. If the manufacturer is shipping their products long-distance, the cost of collecting empties, cleaning them, and shipping the heavier bottles both directions is a lot more than the cost of buying new bottles. There are very few small, local producers of milk, juice, and other beverages (except micro-breweries) these days so products have to be shipped a long way.

Most beer bottles and other glass containers are currently made to survive just one trip from the factory to your house and they’re as thin and light as possible without being too easy to break. As a homebrewer, I have to be careful which bottles I use because the really thin bottles can explode if the pressure inside is too high.

They can and some do. They usually only recycle the ones that have defects, or the ones with different shape than what they need.

Bottles have to be made strong enough to survive the turbulence of the distribution process. Advanced technology has created incredibly strong bottles, but efficiency dictates that you can’t make them so strong that they will cost more to make. So they do their job, but often lose their strength getting knocked around from the factory to the consumer. Figuring out which bottles retain their strength for another go and which ones have weakened adds a variable to the process that can be eliminated by recycling them to molten glass, repouring and maintaining quality control.

I’m not sure about most countries, and this may be outdated inforemation, but in India they do this with soft drink bottles. There are even places where if you want to enjoy a nice sprite, you have to drink it at the place you bought it so they can take the bottles back right away and they wash and refill on the spot. Over time, the bottles might break or get stolen so there are different eras of logos on bottles. You can probably find bottles with logos from the 80s and see how bottle shapes changed over time.

They can but for all but the smallest operations it’s usually not worth it.

A factor to consider is space.

Empty bottles still occupy a bottle’s worth of volume. A bunch of bottles in a bag or box further take up space because they don’t fit evenly together.

Hence the difficulty of the scheme in Seinfeld to bring deposit bottles and cans from New York to Michigan to take arbitrage advantage of Michigan’s ten cent deposit (vs NY’s five cent); the only way they could make it profitable was if Newman got his hands on a mostly empty mail truck and did it under the cover of a normal mail run.

There are ways to minimize that volume logistically, but the simplest and most effective way on any kind of large scale is to smash the bottles to compress the volume the constituent glass would take up.

That being said, the milk delivery process of yore used* to be exactly this. You got fresh milk from the dairy in glass bottles, and you’d leave your empties on the porch or in the box for the milkman to retrieve and bring back to the dairy on his run.

*Well, still is. It’s just not as common as it used to be, but many smaller dairies still do home delivery of milk and milk products the way they used to.

Because the $ for coordination to get the right ones to the right place isn’t worth the effort.

When I was a child, we did this here in the States. Your “pop bottles” were all returnable/refundable. You would buy a six-pack of Pepsi or Mountain Dew or whatever your soft drink of choice was and then drink them. The empty bottles were put back into the six pack flat and returned to the grocery store where you would get a nickel back for each one (some states gave more, and those were usually listed on the top of the bottle). The bottling company would pick them up, sanitize and refill them at their plant. We did this all the time. I had an uncle who would go along the road side and collect unbroken refundable bottles for spare change (he was just a kid at the time, too).

I seem to recall this phasing out sometime in the early to mid-80s with the onset of plastic bottles and aluminum cans becoming more popular. I’d say storing bottles for this purpose takes up a lot of real estate and probably isn’t as efficient as just manufacturing new plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Good memories, though….

This used to be the model – there were local bottling businesses everywhere. Deposit bottles would be collected, cleaned and reused. But there were many, many fewer brands and sizes of soda to deal with. And the deposits on the bottles used to be a much larger portion of the price of a bottle of soda, making them more valuable.

In The Netherlands, you pay 10 cents extra for most types of beer bottles. You get that money back when you return it to the store.

>Why can’t companies just sanitize and refill them?

What makes you think they don’t? What do you think happens when you take your empties back to the beer store?

I swear, 90% of all ELI5 posts stem from false premises.

It used to be common in the US for bottles to be cleaned and reused, but wider distribution networks and greater diversity of bottle types made that less and less cost effective as time went on.

There’s a big difference between a milk courier delivering milk and picking up empties to bring back to the dairy, and a supermarket that sells 300 kinds of bottled and jarred beverages needing to sort and store all those different types of containers.

Also, glass is one of the easiest and cheapest materials to recycle; that also helped push the financial tipping point.

“Why can’t companies do X” is a very, very loaded question. Most often the reason is “money” and that is just not satisfying. It is, however, very applicable to this particular question.

The real answer is that it costs way more money to deal with a product’s entire lifecycle , than it does to just make a thing and let someone else deal with it afterwards. Glass bottles were designed to be reused over and over again, because it was cheaper than buying new glass bottles every time. They calculated how many times a bottle could be reused, worked that into the overall cost of the product, and the industry was set up around that. And if the bottle could not be reused, they were gathered up and sent back to where ‘cullet’ (industry term for broken glass) to be mixed in to the new glass. Recycling glass is actually a very important part of glass work, so there was a potential for profit to be made there. And, as such, there is an entire industry of glass recycling all over every country in the world.

Plastic bottles, however, are ‘disposable’ and are (usually) not meant to be reused directly after being emptied. That ‘disposable’ aspect means that in the eyes of the corporation/manufacturer, once they sell it to you it is no longer their problem. It is your problem to find out how to deal with it. To the corporation, this is fantastic news because a huge and expensive part of their business is no longer required. And, the ‘recycling’ aspect of Plastic was, sadly, not true. So it is not profitable to recycle plastic, and now that is a huge problem.

From what I understand they mainly don’t get recycled because the materials needed to make glass are everywhere so it is cheaper to gather them than make new bottles out of old ones.

It takes a lot of labor to sort out the bottles and get them back to their correct destinations. In first world countries, labor is expensive and glass is cheap.

In the United States, the answer is because of ‘liability’ or lawyers.

The problem is that one or two people are going to take their glass coke bottles, and use them to store paint thinner, or something stupid and toxic. Then, those people will return the bottles decades later, they get refilled, and then they poison the people who end up drinking from those refilled bottles.

It costs more money to clean the incoming bottles in such a manner as to guarantee that they are safe, than it costs to make new bottles, so companies make new bottles instead of risking reusing a bottle that leads to a lawsuit.

As with all these big-brand questions, the answer is always the same: Because money. The technology obviously isn’t the issue, the companies simply need monetary incentives to do so.

I bet adding a 1$ tax on every non-reusable bottle would solve the problem more or less over night.

I homebrew from time to time and I reuse beer bottles often, but it’s not on a large enough scale to make a real difference

In Brazil, they recycled glass soda bottles for years. Growing up, sometimes you’d find a really old bottle, all scuffed up, like it was frosted glass.

A great Brazilian artist, Cildo Meireles took advantage of the recirculation of bottles to [print political messages](https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fi0.wp.com%2Fbeachpackagingdesign.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2Fboxvox%2F6a00e54f0014bd883401347fa59e42970c.jpg&f=1&nofb=1) and get around the censors.