Skip to main content Accessibility help

The American Beverage Industry and the Development of Curbside Recycling Programs, 1950–2000

  • Bartow J. Elmore

Many people today consider curbside recycling the quintessential model of eco-stewardship, yet this waste-management system in the United States was in many ways a pollutersponsored initiative that allowed corporations to expand their productive capacity without fixing fundamental flaws in their packaging technology. For the soft-drink, brewing, and canning industries, the promise of recycling became a powerful weapon for combating mandatory deposit bills and other source-reduction measures in the 1970s and 1980s. In examining the nexus of business, envirotech, and political history, this article explores how American corporations enrolled government agencies to construct resource reclamation systems in the United States that became models for waste management programs in municipalities around the world.

Hide All

1 Melosi, Martin V., “Waste Management: The Cleaning of America,” Environment 23 (Oct. 1981): 9; for a discussion of the massive increase in packaging waste in the twentieth century, see Strasser, Susan, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York, 1999). Strasser argues that the country's solid-waste problems developed in the early twentieth century in part because of the emergence of a new consumer culture that considered recycling and reuse practices outdated and antimodern, symbolic of impoverishment, and potentially harmful to one's health. Ibid., 136, 200, 269.

2 Novak, William J., “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113 (June 2008): 752–72; Sklar, Martin J., The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890–1916 (Cambridge, U.K., 1988), 434, 438; Kolko, Gabriel, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916 (New York, 1963), 6; John, Richard R., Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); White, Richard, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York, 2010); Balogh, Brian, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge, U.K., 2009).

3 Several scholars have produced excellent works on the development of curbside recycling programs, though none have specifically engaged the literature on the “myth of the weak American state.” See Ackerman, Frank, Why Do We Recycle: Markets, Values, and Public Policy (Washington, D.C., 1997); Melosi, Martin V., Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment (Pittsburgh, 2005); Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, 2000); Rogers, Heather, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New York, 2005); Royte, Elizabeth, Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (New York, 2005); Blumberg, Louis and Gottlieb, Robert, War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle with Garbage? (Washington, D.C., 1989); Zimring, Carl, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (New Brunswick, N.J., 2005).

4 See Aquino, John, ed., Waste Age/Recycling Times' Recycling Handbook (Baton Rouge, 1995). On Germany, see Nast, Mathias, Die stummen Verkäufer: Lebensmittelverpackungen im Zeitalter der Konsumgesellschaft: Umwelthistorische Untersuchung über die Entwicklung der Warenpackung und den Wandel der Einkaufsgewohnheiten (1950er bis 1990er Jahre) (Bern, 1997). For a Scandinavian perspective on beverage-container recycling and an excellent discussion of the sociocultural construction of reverse vending machines (RVMs), see Jørgensen, Finn Arne, Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (New Brunswick, N.J., 2011). For a broad look at how America's throwaway culture transformed the European economy in the latter-half of the twentieth century, see Strasser, Susan, McGovern, Charles, and Judt, Matthias, eds., Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1998).

5 This study seeks to integrate business and environmental history in ways suggested by scholars Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher Sellers. For their discussion of the merger of the fields, see Rosen, Christine Meisner and Sellers, Christopher, “The Nature of the Firm: Towards an Ecocultural History of Business,” Business History Review 73 (Winter 1999): 577600; Rosen, Christine Meisner, “Industrial Ecology and the Greening of Business History,” Business and Economic History 26 (Autumn 1997): 123–37.

6 “Deposit System,” Southern Carbonator and Bottler (Nov. 1905): 10. According to the Coca-Cola Bottler, Coke distributors found deposit systems particularly effective in inducing returns. See Coca-Cola Bottler (Apr. 1929): 3435.

7 The forty-to-fifty figure reflects return rates for some bottles in the 1960s as calculated by the Investment Research Department of Laidlaw and Company in an investment report for the Coca-Cola Company, “Follow-Up Report No. 6 to Basic Report Dated October, 1963,” Aug. 1965, box 57, folder 1, Robert W. Woodruff Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), Emory University (hereafter cited as RWW Papers); United States Resource Conservation Committee, Committee Findings and Staff Papers on National Beverage Container Deposits (Washington, D.C., 1979), 75, 76, 84; Shireman, William K. et al. , The CalPIRG-ELS Study Group Report on Can and Bottle Bills (hereafter cited as Can and Bottle Bills), (Stanford, 1981), 5.

8 Hays, Constance, The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company (New York, 2004), 11.

9 Shireman, et al. , Can and Bottle Bills, 4; American Can Company, A History of Packaged Beer and Its Market in the United States (New York, 1969), 7; Ogle, Maureen, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (Orlando, 2006), 213; McGahan, A. M., “The Emergence of the National Brewing Oligopoly: Competition in the American Market, 1922–1958,” Business History Review 65 (Summer 1991): 229.

10 American Can Company, A History of Packaged Beer, 29; “Soft Drinks: Will the Cans Take Over?” Business Week, Jan. 1954, 47; Shireman, , et al. , Cans and Bottle Bills, 9; “Canned Soda Pop,” Wall Street Journal, 24 Sept. 1953, box 292, folder 10, RWW Papers; McGahan, , “The Emergence of the National Brewing Oligopoly,” 230, 247–48.

11 “Now! Your Favorite Soft Drinks in Cans!” Daily Mirror, 10 June 1953, 19, box 292, folder 10, RWW Papers.

12 “C&C Super Corp. to Open Third Plant Next Month to Can Soft Drinks in Chicago,” New York Times, 25 Apr. 1954, F1.

13 Nicholson, H. B., “The Fabulous Frontier,” A Speech for the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages, 11 Nov. 1953, box 58, folder 1, RWW Papers.

14 Hays, , The Real Thing, xii.

15 “Coca-Cola in Cans for the Far East,” Coca-Cola Bottler (Apr. 1955): 28; “Sales of Canned Soft Drinks Soar,” Coca-Cola Bottler (July 1965): 2527; “Aluminum Aftermath,” Wall Street Journal, 22 Nov. 1965, 2.

16 Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Reuse and Recycling Act of 1979, 96th Cong., 2d sess., 3 Mar. 1980, 58; Senate Subcommittee for Consumers, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Beverage Container Reuse and Recycling Act of 1977, 95th Cong., 1st sess., 25, 26, 27 Jan. 1978, 158.

17 Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Committee on Commerce, Solid Waste Management Act of 1972, 92nd Cong., 2d sess., 6, 10, 13 Mar. 1972, 35; Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Nonreturnable Beverage Container Prohibition Act, 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 6, 7 May 1974, 95, 108; Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 136–37.

18 Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Nonreturnable Beverage Container Prohibition Act, 108; Hays, , The Real Thing, 11, 182.

19 The soft drink industry consistently argued that consumers forced the beverage companies to adopt one-way containers. It was a bottom-up process, Coke and its industry allies argued. Consumers living in the automobile age had more mobility than ever before and wanted the convenience of not having to return packaging to retail outlets. While such claims were in part true, left unsaid were the business forces that shaped America's throwaway culture. Oneway containers helped soft drink businesses achieve economies of scale in their bottling industries, reducing costs associated with collecting and processing returnables. Convenience packaging, in other words, was as much a product of consumer demand as it was an industry solution to a distribution dillema. For excellent works that explore both business and consumer forces that shaped America's throwaway culture, see Susan Strasser, Waste and Want; Strasser, Susan, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (New York, 1989); “Throwaway Society,” in Steinberg's, TedDown to Earth: Nature's Role in American History (Oxford, 2002): 226–39; “‘The Convenience is Out of this World,’ The Garbage Disposer and American Consumer Culture,” in Getting and Spending.

20 In 1961, Kouwenhoven, John Atlee published The Beer Can by the Highway: Essays on What's American about America (Baltimore, 1961), a testament to public concern about the aesthetic costs associated with one-way container waste; “Beer Bottle Plan Offered by Delegate,” Washington Post, 17 Mar. 1953, 26; Rouleau, Andre J., administrator of Vermont Beverage Container Law, “Vermont Deposit Law and Recycling,” presented at Vermont Solid Waste Summit, 8 Nov. 1985, P2 InfoHouse Online Comprehensive Pollution Prevention Reference Collection, (accessed 2 Aug. 2011).

21 “Heads New Anti-Litter Group,” New York Times, 14 Oct. 1954, 31; Royte, , Garbage Land, 184; Melosi, , Garbage in the Cities, 225–26; Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 141–46.

22 “Litter Increased in Crowded Cities,” New York Times, 7 Dec. 1954, 40.

23 Strand, Ginger, “The Crying Indian: How an Environmental Icon Helped Sell Cans—and Sell Out Environmentalism,” Orion Nature Quarterly (Nov./Dec. 2008): 24; Dunaway, Finis, “Gas Masks, Pogo, and the Ecological Indian: Earth Day and the Visual Politics of American Environmentalism,” American Quarterly 60 (Mar. 2008): 6799; Strand, , “The Crying Indian,” 24; Royte, , Garbage Land, 184.

24 Melosi, , Garbage in the Cities, 170; Beverage Industry 87 (June 1996): 26, cited on the Library of Congress'sCoca-Cola Television Advertisements: Homepage,” (accessed 29 Mar. 2011); Paul Austin to Robert W. Woodruff, 28 Nov. 1969, box 16, folder 1, RWW Papers.

25 American Soft Drink Journal (July 1967): 34; National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) Bulletin, 26 Apr. 1968; NSDA Bulletin (Jan.–Feb. 1968).

26 Paul Austin to Robert W. Woodruff, 28 Nov. 1969, box 16, folder 1, RWW Papers.

27 “‘Bend a Little’ and ‘Keep America Beautiful,’” featured on Coca-Cola's company blog, “Coca-Cola Conversations,” edited by archivists Ryan, Ted and Mooney, Phil, (accessed 28 Jan. 2010); Pendergrast, , For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, 301; New York Times, 22 Apr. 1970, 33.

28 For a detailed history of the Oregon battle, see Walth, Brent, “No Deposit, No Return: Richard Chambers, Tom McCall, and the Oregon Bottle Bill,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 95 (Fall 1994): 278–99; Stanford Environmental Law Society, Disposing of Non-Returnables: A Guide to Minimum Deposit Legislation (Stanford, 1975), 17.

29 Gould, Lewis, Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment (Lawrence, Kans., 1988). See also Gould, Lewis, ed., Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady (Lawrence, Kans., 1988); Melosi, , Garbage in the Cities, 198, 200–01.

30 House Subcommittee on Public Health and Welfare, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Prohibit Certain No-Deposit, No-Return Containers, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 18 Sept. 1970, 53.

31 Ibid., 46; Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Solid Waste Management Act of 1972, 79.

32 Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Materials Policy, 95th Cong., 1st sess., 14, 19 July 1977, 62.

33 Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 150; “Yonkers Studies a No-Return Ban,” New York Times, 9 Sept. 1971, 59.

34 Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 172.

35 Zimring, , Cash for Your Trash, 160; Jørgensen, , Making a Green Machine, 2931.

36 Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 140.

37 Meeting minutes from the State Association Conference, National Soft Drink Association, 10 Nov. 1970, 12, American Beverage Association (ABA) Information Center, Washington, D.C.

38 “Advertising: Reynolds in an Ecology Drive,” New York Times, 13 Apr. 1971, 63; “Display Ad,” New York Times, 9 Feb. 1971, 25; Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Solid Waste Management Act of 1972, 81.

39 Melosi, , Garbage in the Cities, 221; “Recycling Efforts Faltering on L. I.,” New York Times, 13 Feb. 1972, A1.

40 “Waste Recycling Effort Found to Lag,” New York Times, 7 May 1972, 1; “A Guide to Recycling,” Washington Post, 13 Apr. 1978, VA1.

41 “Waste Recycling Effort Found to Lag,” New York Times, 7 May 1972, 1, 57; Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Solid Waste Management Act of 1972, 26.

42 House Subcommittee on Public Health and Welfare, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Prohibit Certain No-Deposit, No-Return Containers, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 18 Sept. 1970, 39; Royte, , Garbage Land, 127.

43 Senate Subcommittee on Environment, Solid Waste Management Act of 1972, 35.

44 Senate Subcommittee for Consumer, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Beverage Container Recycling and Reuse, 95th Cong., 2d sess., 25, 26, and 27 Jan. 1978, 203.

45 On the birth of the environmental justice movement, see McGurty, Eileen Maura, “From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement,” in Environmental History of the American South: A Reader, ed. Sutter, Paul and Manganiello, Christopher J. (Athens, Ga., 2009); and Bullard, Robert, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, Co., 1990). For works on the emergence of the modern environmental movement, see Hays, Samuel P. and Hayes, Barbara, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (Cambridge, U.K., 1987); Steinberg, Ted, “Shades of Green,” in Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, ch. 15 (Oxford, 2002), 239–61; Rome, Adam, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, U.K., 2001). According to Heather Rogers, one study showed that roadside litter in Oregon decreased by 35 percent in the wake of the new deposit law. Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 147.

46 Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Reuse and Recycling Act of 1979, 68.

47 Jørgensen, , Making a Green Machine, 89.

48 Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 154.

49 “Bottle Bill Foes' Recycling Claim Disputed,” Washington Post, 25 Oct. 1987, B7; Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Recycling, 102nd Cong., 2d sess., 17 Sept. 1992, 160; House Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Recycling of Municipal Solid Waste, 101st Cong., 2d sess., 12, 13 July 1989, 256. For a thorough analysis of the D.C. bottle bill debate, see Clay, Joy A., “The D.C. Bottle Bill Initiative: A Casualty of the Reagan Era,” Environmental Review 13, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 1731.

50 Gaines, L. L. and Wolsky, A. M., “Resource Conservation Through Beverage Container Recycling,” Conservation and Recycling 6 (1983): 1114. In 1969, the Coca-Cola company commissioned the first Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study to determine the environmental footprint of various packaging materials. Under the direction of Robert Hunt and Bill Franklin, the Midwest Research Institute (MRI) carried out the study on behalf of the soft drink company. Their findings were never reported to the public, but in 1974, the EPA asked Hunt and Franklin to complete a similar study on nine different beverage containers. The study, Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Nine Beverage Alternatives (Washington, D.C., 1974), offered an excellent comparison of energy requirements and environmental costs associated with recycling different packaging materials. For more on Coke's involvment in the develoment of LCA, see Hunt, Robert G. and Franklin, William E., “LCA—How It Came About: Personal Reflections on the Origin and the Development of LCA in the USA,” International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 1 (Mar. 1996): 47.

51 van Voorst, Bruce, and Schoenthal, Rhea, “The Recycling Bottleneck,” Time, 14 Sept. 1992; Zimring, , Cash for Your Trash, 134; Kimball, Debi, Recycling in America: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1992), 2324.

52 Royte, , Garbage Land, 14; “Who Foots the Bill for Recycling,” New York Times, 25 Apr. 1993, F5; Folz, David H., “Recycling Performance: A Public Sector Environmental Success Story,” Public Administration Review 59 (July–Aug. 1999): 343; Loughlin, Daniel H. and Barlaz, Morton A., “Policies for Strengthening Markets for Recyclables: A Worldwide Perspective,” Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology 36 (2006): 290.

53 Rogers, , Gone Tomorrow, 176; “Can or Bottle, Bill Wants Makers to Pay for Recycling,” New York Times, 11 July 2002; Government Accountability Office (GAO), Recycling: Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling (Dec. 2003), 11; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures (Washington, D.C., 2010), 52.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Business History Review
  • ISSN: 0007-6805
  • EISSN: 2044-768X
  • URL: /core/journals/business-history-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed