Many Happy Returns

By: Rob Symes
Distill our drinking consumption down to pure alcohol, and the average Canadian drinks 10 litres of the stuff – good enough for 40th place amongst all nations according to a 2017 study by the World Health Organization. Not only is a that a lot of beer, wine and liquor, but it’s also a staggering amount of bottles and cans. Fortunately, Canada is amongst the world leaders in reuse and recycling, with bottle deposit programs complementing blue boxes.
Just as 25 cents may stop a shopping cart from wandering, it often only takes a dime to get a beverage container back into the system. Bottle deposit programs exist all across Canada and have proven extremely successful. For example,  Ontario’s one billionth bottle was returned in 2010 – literally an astronomical feat if you consider that these bottles would reach over three-quarters of the way to the moon if they were stacked on top of each other. National return rates are north of 95% for alcohol containers, compared to a 50% rate for containers that don’t have a deposit.
Returned containers are either reused (think bottles) or recycled (think cans). In Canada’s most populous province the splits show that 44% of beer containers are sent to brewers for reuse, while 56% are sent for recycling. What does this look like? After we drop our cans and bottles off they are sorted by format, colour and size either in store or at an offsite facility, before being stacked in pallets. These pallets are either collected by brewers when they drop off their deliveries or make their way back to breweries via direct shipment. It’s at this point that the grungy old bottles that have been festering in your basement are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized to ensure that every last contaminant is removed before refilling. As long as those bottles remain whole, they will be filled an average of thirteen times before eventually failing. As for recycling, broken glass is pelletized and sent to glass manufacturers, while cans are melted down and formed into new sheets of aluminum.
Coast-to-coast, this has a hugely positive impact on the environment. “It’s a great feeling to know that the work that we do every day has such positive and far-reaching impacts on our environment”, says Jennifer Barbazza, Director of Sustainability at Ontario’s Beer Store. “Reuse and recycling are fundamental to our business model and have been for over 90 years.” It’s remarkable how engrained returns have become in our culture to the degree that even people who do not make purchases at the drop off locations will still make special trips, often only receiving a few dollars back in exchange.
So, where do we go from here? One way is increased awareness for the programs currently in place to help maintain and even grow adoption. “We plan to focus on educating consumers on what bringing containers back to the Beer Store means for the environment”, says Jennifer Barbazza. “Whether that’s the ability to reuse a container as opposed to creating new containers, the new products that are made from the recyclables and the greenhouse gas reductions associated with these activities. We want consumers to understand that this is about more than just getting your deposit back.” Another intriguing option is expanding the deposit program to other containers across all of Canada. Provinces like British Columbia and Quebec already have measures in place covering soft drink, but there is no universal approach. Considering that drinks containers make up an estimated 50% of street litter globally, applying successful programs across the board makes a lot of sense. Either way, raise a bottle to recycling, and don’t forget to return it afterwards.