By David McRobert
On August 17th, Ellen Moorhouse published a very flattering review of my new book,
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. (For a link to the book see below.) The review, published on the Toronto Star’s web site, appears below as a link.
Since the article was published on the Star’s web site time I have been contacted by dozens of journalists, academics, experts, consultants, students, activists and others. Some have taken issue with my arguments. Some have offered support and proposed collaboration on related projects. Others have proposed business opportunities. My thanks to all of them for their comments and insights.
In this blog I want to highlight a couple of points that I find get lost in the debate about waste reduction, refillable containers and recycling in Canada. In future blogs I plan to examine other related topics including occupational health and safety (OHS) and the implications of cheap soft drinks for northern aboriginal communities and food policy.
One point that is lost or downplayed in most discussions about some of the themes in my recent book is that the 3Rs hierarchy and 6Rs principles (http://practicalaction.org/6rs) have vital implications in terms of climate change, pollution prevention and energy conservation. (More on the 6Rs in a future blog)
I have worked on energy conservation since the late 1970s when I was a student at Trent and volunteered with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). Our goal was to highlight that Ontario’s pro-nuclear policy was absurd, unsustainable and would bankrupt the Ontario government. I continued this work when I became involved in my graduate work at Environmental Studies at York and in founding the Green Party of Ontario and Green Party of Canada in 1983.
At Pollution Probe I was hired as the climate change and waste campaigner in 1990. Two trends I noticed in the first six months were worrisome. First, the Ontario Liberal government had agreed in April 1990 to abandon the minimal refillable requirement of 30 per cent for soft drinks, thanks to pressure from Coca-Cola. (Interestingly, this 30 per cent refillable requirement remains the law of Ontario even though it has not been enforced since 1989.) At the same time, the beer industry had begun to experiment with marketing non-refillable plastic bottles in the Ontario market. I latched onto both issues as symbolic politics and aggressively portrayed the sputtering David Peterson-led Liberal government as playing to corporate interests and ignoring the environmental and energy aspects of this shift to recyclables.
I also was very concerned about the fact that we had started to ship cans and bottles full of soft drinks from Toronto (where 90 per cent of the bottling takes place) to Ottawa, Windsor, Thunder Bay, etc. Local pop stores in communities like Peterborough and Ottawa lost their local plants and the jobs.
What are Coke and Pepsi shipping hither and yon from the Greater Toronto Area? Plastic (PET) and glass bottles and aluminum cans containing 98 per cent water and a bit of syrup and carbonation. In the old days, syrup and carbonation were added locally using local water supplies and refillable bottles. The shift to transporting containers full of water-laden pop long distances has massive climate change implications. We use a large amount of energy to ship food and beverages, premised on cheap energy and generation of greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Recycling also causes a large amount of pollution. Running trucks around neighborhoods to pick up PET bottles and other lightweight and low value plastics causes more pollution than having purchasers directly return their used PET or glass refillable bottles to the grocery store. As we used to do.
In a sense advocates for refillable containers were trying to promote the local consumption movement back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Forty years ago. The soft drink battle was a way to highlight the problem.
One of the main reason the major soft drink producers switched to throwaway containers is that with their high speed centralized canning and bottling hubs they could “swamp” the market and push out the local mom and pop producers like the “Pop Shoppe”. These producers could be competitive when bottling was local and everyone needed their “float” of refillable glass bottles back. With the advent of massive non-refillable sales in North America, the local operators were crushed by a combination of the loss of this normalizing float factor, aggressive marketing, and emerging centralized and cheap food retailer distribution systems through Loblaws (and No Frills), Freshco, Costco, Walmart and other companies.
Unfortunately returning to glass bottles for pop and milk are not a great solution in 2012 unless we also return to local production and distribution. As my book shows, if you ship glass bottles more than 200 or 300 miles you can forfeit many of the environmental and energy benefits of refillables, depending on the rate of recycling of the lighter one-way aluminum and PET containers. In the early 1990s when I worked at the Ministry of the Environment Alcan argued that aluminum cans were superior to refillable glass bottles from an energy and environmental perspective once the recycling rate was approximately 85 per cent, when compared with refillable glass beer bottles.
What Alcan neglected to mention back in the early 1990s is that the GHGs associated with aluminum production are staggering (see my book for more information on this). Thus I would argue we are nowhere the rates of recycling for aluminum cans that we should strive towards – which ought to be above 95 per cent.
Using refillable glass and plastic bottles for milk and pop would be wonderful in a town like Peterborough which has major structural unemployment. Indeed, a local brewer down my street, The Publican House Brewery, sells its popular (and delicious) products in 1.9 litre refillable glass growlers (with a $3 deposit) as well as 473ml. cans.
On growler bottles, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_bottle
Marty Laskaris, one of the owners of the Publican (and an energy policy wonk who used to work for Enbridge Gas when it was called Consumers Gas) and I have had discussions about refillable options to replace the aluminum cans he uses but appropriate technologies seem to be unaffordable and unavailable. He is well aware of the massive GHG contribution related to production of aluminum.
For longer distance shipping of beverages, refillable plastic bottles (PET, Lexan, etc.) offer staggering opportunities for energy savings and prevent pollution through re-use and reduced shipping costs relative to refillable glass. Coke has used the technology in Europe and South America since the late 1980s. In Canada, soft drink companies could have shifted to this technology in the late 1980s as well and taxed use of non-refillables for soft drinks to encourage the shift. The way we do for beer cans and LCBO containers.
Ironically it was a Canadian who invented the “sniffer technology” to detect whether a plastic refillable or reusable container has been used to store gasoline or other toxic compounds.
Such an incident occurred in 1978 in Ontario with a plastic milk jug from Becker’s Milk stores (a chain in Canada) and led the federal government to ban the reuse of plastic containers in contact with food. There were concerns about potential health risks that were wildly exaggerated inn my view. But the federal ban certainly served the interests of companies that make PET bottles and other plastics from virgin petrochemical products in Sarnia who wanted to sell as much new plastic was they could.
What are the key lessons from all of this? We missed out on opportunities to develop better socio-technical systems such as refillable glass and metal and perhaps plastic Lexan containers. These types of system could have been used for local on-site school, hospital and university beverage programs (among other institutions and corporations) that would promote health, reduce toxin exposure, save energy and promote sustainability. The educational value would have been amazing. Instead, institutions installed soft drink vending machines.
All is not lost. In future blogs I will discuss how we can move forward.
David McRobert is an Ontario-based environmental and energy lawyer and a blogger for HMM and SWR magazines. Between October 1994 and June 2010, he was In-House Counsel at the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and was involved in the establishment of the office. David has a B.Sc. in Biology from Trent University (1980), a Master’s degree, and an LL.B. degree from Osgoode Hall Law School (1987). He taught environmental law at York University between 1994 and 2009 and has numerous previous publications.
If you want to reach David, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click below to purchase David’s new book or visit his website for more information.
Pop history: The soft drink story behind recycling
Published on Friday August 17, 2012
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ELLEN MOORHOUSE PHOTO
It was an agreement in 1985 between the provincial government and soft drink companies that allowed them to cut their use of refillable bottles and helped lay the foundation for municipal recycling programs in Ontario.
By Ellen Moorhouse YourHome Columnist
Seeing all of those blue bins lined up curbside makes us feel environmentally virtuous, doesn’t it? Well, once we understand some of the historical horse-trading that went on to get recycling put in place, we may not be quite so smug.
One of the best sources on this subject is David McRobert, who I’ve spoken to before. He has recently published e-books through amazon.com’s CreateSpace. They are essentially compendiums of studies, papers, presentations, even a draft master’s thesis that he wrote in law school. (Disclosure here: One of the books includes a Trash Talk column.)
McRobert — a lawyer, former civil servant, environmentalist and teacher — was either in the middle of the fray or sat ringside as recycling evolved. He has worked at Pollution Probe, focusing on waste management and climate change, and the Ontario Environment Ministry, helped develop blue box regulations and was in-house counsel for the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario for 16 years.
He is a fervent supporter of the first two of the three Rs — reduce and reuse — and believes our policies should promote these before recycling. He also is not shy of controversy. He has titled his blue box book: My Municipal Recycling Program Made Me Fat and Sick.
Why? Blue box funding traces its origins in Ontario to the battle over quotas for the use of refillable bottles for soft drinks. The provincial government let the industry off the hook on reusable containers in return for money directed toward recycling.
The result: soft drink makers saved bundles of money, achieved efficiencies, could sell larger bottle sizes and keep prices low. McRobert suggests, as a result, pop displaced more healthy alternatives, and studies have found a correlation between soft drink consumption, obesity and health issues. Thus, McRobert’s inflammatory title.
Here’s a bit of history:
Soft-drink makers lobbied hard in the 1970s and 1980s for freedom from Ontario’s quotas for use of refillable pop bottles. They wanted to switch to single-use cans and plastic containers, which they said consumers wanted.
Supporting that position were the steelworkers and steelmakers (jobs and business), Alcan (which argued selling pop in aluminum cans because the metal’s value would bring potential revenue to recycling programs), and some environmentalists (Pollution Probe), who wanted industry funding for curbside recycling.
Clinching the blue box deal was a $1-million offer from the soft drink industry in 1985 for recycling in return for a reduction in the refillable pop bottle quota.
The funding went to what McRobert calls a “bizarre” agency, created by the soft drink makers and their allies in the aluminum, plastic, steel, glass and newsprint industries. Contributions to the agency, the precursor of the present-day Stewardship Ontario, were soon boosted to $20 million to cover a portion of municipal capital costs associated with blue box programs. With additional funds from the province, municipalities hopped on the recycling bandwagon.
So who were the losers, according to McRobert?
Taxpayers, for one. A deposit-return refillable bottling system is paid for by the drinkers and the producers, which McRobert believes is as it should be. With recycling and garbage, end-of-use costs are off-loaded.
“While the soft drink industry reduced its costs, taxpayers got the shaft,” he wrote. “Ontario municipalities and successive provincial governments spent several hundred million dollars between 1985 and the late 1990s to keep their municipal Blue Box programs going.”
Even now, industry covers only half the cost of municipal programs.
Local ma-and-pa bottling plants closed up as the pop industry restructured, putting thousands out of work. This represented significant job losses, especially in northern Ontario towns.
The impact of consumption of cheap sugary soft drinks on health has already been mentioned, and the environment is also a loser in this trade-off.
How ironic that the blue box program was built on the demise of the more eco-friendly option of reusable bottles and deposit-return. McRobert cites figures that glass containers, reused 10 times compared with aluminum cans recycled at 90 per cent, results in energy savings of 30 to 50 per cent. In 2007, Waste Diversion Ontario estimated only 45 per cent of aluminum packaging was captured in the blue box.
Recycling itself causes large amounts of pollution. “Running trucks around neighbourhoods,” McRobert says, “to pick up PET (plastic) bottles and other lightweight and low-value plastics causes more pollution than having purchasers directly return their used PET or glass refillable bottles to the grocery store. As we used to do.”
All of this is a cautionary tale. When there are advances on the environmental front, chances are there are some powerful corporate interests shaping the outcome. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have recycling, but we should still be mindful of those first two Rs, reduce and reuse. Being able to chuck something into recycling should not be a wide-open licence for guilt-free consumption.
We should also hope Big Blue doesn’t crowd out serious consideration of other systems that promote reuse or produce better, cleaner collection results, like more widespread deposit-return, which already works so well at The Beer Store and the LCBO.
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