You know you’re old and curmudgeonly when you remember fondly returnable beer and soda bottles. They had a heft to them, felt heavier in your hand or carrying them to the car. That’s because they were made to last, to be used over and over again. I hadn’t really thought about it until this morning, but that was real recycling, well before the term had even been coined. But it was just practical to make things that could be re-used. It’s almost a cruel joke that as a society we’re so obsessed lately with recycling when without realizing it we were doing far more of it years ago before almost all packaging, including bottles and cans, became throwaways. If we really cared more about the environment and the world than our own selfish “convenience” then it would be easy to just return to … well, returnables.
Unfortunately, I’d say it would be almost impossible to change our collective habits at this point (yes, I’m a pessimist as well as a curmudgeon) despite the fact that many places around the world never stopped using returnable bottles. Germany is a prime example of this. All the beer bottles sold there are returnables and every brewery has huge stacks of cartons filled with bottles waiting to be cleaned and reused. Obviously, their economy hasn’t suffered and people haven’t decided to stop drinking beer because they might have to return the bottles rather than just throw them away. But I just can’t see that happening here where everything is about being fast and convenient, where it’s all about “instant” gratification. Lest you accuse me of being too self-righteous, I include myself among the lazy multitudes.
I bring this up because the Lehigh Valley [Pennsylvania] Morning Call has an interesting article about their local beer, Straub Brewery, and how Returnable beer bottles to become extinct if Straub doesn’t get back some cases. It’s not surprising that Straub is one of only two breweries who are still using returnable beer bottles — the other being Yuengling — and that both are in Pennsylvania, since the Commonwealth is the lone remaining (as far as I know) case state, meaning almost all beer is sold by the case at what are called “beer distributors.” This may have made sense in 1933, but it’s become an increasingly antiquated system as the years have rolled on.
From the article:
Straub Brewery, a 138-year-old family-owned business about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is begging customers mostly in Pennsylvania but also some in Ohio, New York and Virginia to return thousands of empty cases.
Without them, Straub says it will do as nearly every brewer has done over the years — eliminate returnable bottles from its inventory. Only one other major brewer and the nation’s oldest , D.G. Yuengling & Sons of Pottsville, still sells beer in returnable bottles. But it plans to phase out the practice by fall.
All major brewers, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, gave up on returnable bottles years ago because their costs multiplied with national distribution. About 12 percent of all U.S. beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but since 2007 the percentage has been negligible, according to the Beer Institute in Washington, D.C. In Pennsylvania, more than a quarter of all beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but that was when state liquor control laws required most beers to be sold by the case through distributors which readily accepted the returns.
So hopefully their customers will heed the call and start returning their bottles so they can be used again. I know it’s a forgone conclusion that returnable bottles will die out at some point, but the nostalgic, romantic in me (a.k.a. old man) still thinks that the returnable is an idea that should be revisited, especially with the recent increased focus on being green. It would be hard to argue that reusing bottles and packaging wouldn’t ultimately be better for the environment than our current recycling efforts. But I think Dick Yuengling summed up the situation best.
“The consumer’s been indoctrinated; we’re a throwaway society,” Yuengling said. “Everybody’s environmentally conscious, but if you put a case of returnable bottles in front of them, they say, ‘What’s that?’”