Bill Carter (WCARTER@tnrcc.state.tx.us)
Thu, 21 Jan 1999 14:30:35 -0600

Just wanted to share my experience of a previous market "shift" in the
bottling industry in case it helps enlighten the possible dimensions of the
current plastic beer bottle debate.

In 1986-7, the beer and grocery industries apparently decided they were
ready to phase out the returnable beer bottle system, at least for retail
sales. The first step was the introduction of a non-refillable longneck
look-alike into test markets, including parts of Texas, starting with
Budweiser and quickly followed by all major brands that had long-necks.
Suddenly there was great consternation in the refilling system, as
these look-alike longnecks increasingly sneaked into the system and
caused massive breakage and spillage problems and losses. In a very
short time, all local grocery outlets had stopped carrying beer in refillable
bottles or paying for returned deposit bottles, so consumers suddenly
had great difficulty finding beer in returnables or recovering deposits.

A handful of independent brewers with refilling systems toughed it out
for a while, but they were unwilling to openly go up against the major
distributors in an almost certainly futile attempt to roll back these
changes. Their returnable longnecks bled away into the recycling
stream or the garbage.

As director of Ecology Action in Austin, I could not find anyone interested
in waging a campaign on the issue, including fellow board members of
the National Recycling Coalition. There just wasn't a major constituency
for returnables. We (Ecology Action) profited for a little while by
hand-sorting the longnecks we received and providing one of the few
reliable sources of refillable bottles to stock the "last gasp" of the refilling
operations in the area. I have recently learned that there is at least one
regional refiller still operating, supplying beer of various makes in
returnable longnecks strictly to the commercial establishment trade (bars
& restaurants in San Antonio, possibly elsewhere) where bulk returns
free of "fake longnecks" can be assured.

It is my impression that the beer refilling system was decimated nationally
within a short time in the late 80's, except in some container deposit
states where the refilling system was well entrenched. I'd be curious to
know where beer and/or soda refilling still has any significant market

One more item of trivia -- there is a plastic soda bottle refilling system in
Mexico, using very heavy-duty plastic bottles. And of course, glass soda
and beer bottle refilling is still alive and well there, including clear Corona
bottles among other brands that have never been refillable in the US.

Bill Carter, Program Specialist
Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission
Office of Small Business and Environmental Assistance
MC114 P.O. Box 13087, Austin, TX 78711-3087 USA
(512) 239-6771