The Hidden Costs of Beer in Grocery Stores
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The Hidden Costs of Beer in Grocery Stores

A decades-old battle to reuse or recycle drinking containers could mean additional costs to municipalities, argues Councillor Gord Perks.

Before celebrating beer sales in supermarkets, let’s do a little thought experiment that explores the hidden costs of last week’s news. Suppose you opened your morning paper to an exposé of the big glassware and mug conglomerates’ plan to force you into the time-wasting occupation of washing glasses and mugs. You’d see through it, right?

Anyone who bought beer or pop or milk prior to the mid-’60s would instantly see through the “convenience” of buying recyclable cans at grocery stores instead of refillable bottles at the Beer Store. Recycling (melting a can or bottle down to make into a new container) would have seemed wasteful and stupid. Why melt a perfectly good container? Alas, a 50-year campaign by the soft drink, retail, and aluminum industries has erased that sound judgment from the public mind.

The PR campaign happened because the economic facts changed. Labour costs rose. Raw material costs dropped. Transportation costs plummeted. It became cheap to manufacture disposable and recyclable containers, and ship beverages all over the continent. We lost a distributed network of local bottling plants. We lost local jobs. And we polluted more—recycling is much more energy- and material-intensive than reuse.

Further, municipalities had to expand their garbage-collection systems. All these new one-way containers became a public responsibility and a public cost, rather than the responsibility of the multinational companies who produced the containers. This transference of responsibility meant tens of millions of dollars in additional costs to Ontario municipalities.

Never happy to increase taxes, local governments pushed back. For the last 50 years, a regulatory, lobbying, and public-relations war has been raging all over the continent. Well, the war has actually been a disorderly retreat. Government would draw a line. It would hold for a few years, then the logic of the market would push us back to a new line in the sand. Then another retreat. Then another line. You get the idea.

The battle made for strange moments.

In the late ’70s, the soft-drink industry launched a huge ad campaign about the terrible hazard of exploding pop bottles. Dangerous glass bottles were depicted bursting in sweetly appointed middle-class kitchens.

The City of Toronto once passed a zoning bylaw that forbade the existence of LCBO stores that did not take back empty wine and spirits bottles. Within weeks, the province passed a regulation that forbade municipalities from zoning LCBO take-back requirements.

In the ’90s, I hired a lawyer and went to court to file a Private Information (think citizen’s arrest) against Coca-Cola for failing to live up to refillable bottle regulations. When I got to court, the province took the case away from me—essentially saying, “Thanks for the arrest, we will handle this scoundrel for you.” Within minutes, they announced that they had decided to drop the charges. I appealed this all the way to the Supreme Court. But they refused to hear it.

These battles were settled differently in each jurisdiction. It’s why nobody has any idea, when they’re visiting a different province or state, what can be recycled, what can be returned, or even where one can get a drink in this town. It’s also why none of the systems seem to make much sense.

The silver lining is we have many different systems to compare. Let’s look at some of the lessons learned.

  • The highest rates of container recovery return are in systems where all sellers are required to take containers back. Curbside recycling gets 50–70 per cent back. The Beer Store refillable system achieves a world-beating 99 per cent.
  • Retailers hate taking back containers because returned containers use space that would otherwise be occupied by products that sell at a profit.
  • Reuse generates more local employment than recycling.
  • Costs gradually migrate from the private sector to the public.
  • The continent-wide consolidation of production leads to a few companies selling the same generic products in all markets.
  • And, as pointed out above, each regulatory compromise is just the platform for a new round of concessions.

So, where are we? We have just retreated the first few inches on beer-bottle refillables, and in return it will be a little easier to buy beer. In exchange: our garbage and recycling costs will inch up, we will gradually lose local jobs, and the environmental impact of drinking beer will start climbing. In a time when pollution is a growing problem, good jobs are more difficult to find, and people are increasingly reluctant to pay taxes or fees for public services, this strikes me as a very bad bargain.

Gord Perks has been the councillor for Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park since 2006.