In May 2012, David McRobert published My Municipal Recycling Program Made Me Fat and Sick: How well-intentioned environmentalists teamed up with the soft drink industry to promote obesity and injure workers (CreateSpace — An Amazon.com company, Charleston, South Carolina). McRobert is a well known environmental lawyer whose career has included a stint at Pollution Probe, policy advisor positions with an Ontario NDP government and the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, and lecturing at universities. (He recently became an online columnist for this magazine’s website and sister publication HazMat Management magazine.)
McRobert pulls no punches faulting the soft-drink industry not only for the vast amounts of its packaging waste that enter landfills across North America or are recycled mostly at taxpayer expense, but for the effect of the liquid products themselves on human health.
There’s an unspoken axiom among waste consultants that it’s fair game to criticize soft-drink packaging and diversion rates, but not the drinks themselves. McRobert missed that memo, and we can be thankful for his direct and bleak assessment. His chapter detailing the obesity and other health impacts of soft drink consumption on poor people and especially on indian reservations is devastating.
McRobert writes that when he worked in the Waste Reduction Office of Ontario’s environment industry he ran into institutional resistance to his proposals that deposit-refund laws be implemented for used beverage containers; an option staff there had “jettisoned in 1985 and were well beyond conceptually,” McRobert writes.
The book is filled with colorful behind-the-scenes vignettes such as this one:
“The Deputy Minister Gary Posen also convened standing-room only staff meetings (attended by various Assistant Deputy Ministers, Directors and other senior staff) in the large Deputy’s boardroom on the 12th floor of Ministry’s main office at 135 St. Clair to discuss, in a few minutes, the options I had outlined in more than 100 pages; in retrospect, this was a transparent (but unsuccessful) attempt by the Deputy and senior MOE civil servants to bury the issue of universal container deposit-refund systems and silence dissent.”
McRobert’s book retells the story of how the soft-drink industry, aided by the grocers, undermined the system of refillable glass containers managed under deposit, then replaced it with today’s single-use packaging that it cleverly rebranded “recyclable.”
“In 1976,” McRobert writes, “a law under the Environmental Protection Act was passed allowing the Ontario government to enact regulations banning non-refillable soft drink containers. However, the regulations banning non-refillables were never passed and instead in 1978 the soft drink industry convinced the Minister of the Environment to sign a ‘voluntary agreement’ that soft drink companies and retailers would sell 75 percent of its soft drinks be in refillable containers.
“The 75 percent ratio for refillable class containers was never reached though because the soft drink industry had trouble with the targets and at least one 2-litre bottle had ‘exploded’ when it fell on the floor of an Ontario supermarket in 1978.”
McRobert recounts the power dynamic between different material producers such as the aluminum and plastic industries, which wanted in on the lucrative soft drink container business, and the political deals in which environmental groups agreed to relaxation of the refillable quote in return for a $1-million contribution to set up Ontario Multi-Material Recycling Inc. (OMMRI) to expand blue box recycling programs (later raised to $20 million).
McRobert writes that “By the late 1980s, the economics of the arrangement had become clearer. In 1988, it was estimated that not having to operate a full-scale bottle deposit/return system was saving the soft drink industry about $60-80 million annually. However, the industry collectively contributed only $20 million to the Blue Box program between 1986 and 1990 ($5 million per year) and there was evidence in 1990 that $10 million of money was arranged through capital cost allowances under the federal Income Tax Act to OMMRI and the soft drink companies. Since 1985, the soft drink industry has saved several billion dollars in Canada. Indeed, this explains the SD industry’s willing financial support for the Blue Box program back in the early 1980s.”
McRobert continues: “Options that might have proven more sustainable were not explored. Other types of container types such as refillable PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) were not considered even though these technologies were being used in Europe and South America and easily could have been adopted.”
The book is an interesting reminder of how we ended up in the current recycling paradigm and the commercial interests that were served by making recycling (and not reuse and reduction) the altar in front of which we genuflect and ask forgiveness for our environmental sins. I recommend it.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org