Photo by Helene Goderis Photo by Helene Goderis Helene Goderis

When I first heard that the city might alter recycling regulation so that beer and wine bottles would be designated city property once they were in your Blue Bin, I started leaving my bottles on the curb instead. My reasons are twofold: industrious bottle collectors deserve a break from rooting through bins, and the city can’t tell me what to do with my damn bottles. I made that 10 cent deposit, not them.

As it turns out, the actual law is focused on prohibiting bottle collectors from scavenging through residential trash bins. But because the bottle has 10 sweet cents attached to it, there’s an economic incentive to bin dive. Bottle collecting is so competitive I once had a bag of empty beer cans stolen from me while on my way to the Beer Store. It was my fault for taking my eyes off them. Live and learn.

Bottle recycling is a thriving business, not just for the lady in slippers with the tartan buggy that pesters you for your half finished beer at dusk in Trinity Bellwoods Park, but for the municipality, province, and beer manufacturers too. If anybody is losing out on that 10 cent deposit, it’s you, sucker, for not returning your empties.

The Ontario bottle return rate is remarkable. Between the Beer Store and the 4-year old Ontario Deposit Return Program (ODRP), 92% of bottles sold are returned to the manufacturer to be refilled. And this accomplishment does not go unnoticed by Canadian environmentalists. The Beer Store’s website is peppered with praise from Environmental Defense Canada, The David Suzuki Foundation, and the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Why is bottle return apparently so efficient, while other recycling ventures struggle to make the grade? Partly because beer bottle return is a closed system -- the money follows the bottle. Most bottles arrive at the brewery through the ODRP or the Beer Store’s return program. The Beer Store pays out the deposit to you, your most responsible roommate, or the slipper-wearing park lady -- whoever returns the empties. The bottles are then shipped to brewers who repay the deposit to The Beer Store. If Toronto Recycling sorts the bottle from your Blue Bin and returns them to the brewery, the city keeps your deposit and uses it to supplement the Blue Bin program. Kapish?

To witness this refilling process ourselves, the E-I-C and I went to the Steam Whistle brewery. Sybil, the friendly Steam Whistle communications director, led us through the compact downtown brewery. Because the factory is an historical building, formerly known as the CPR John Street Roundhouse, expansion is difficult. To save space the machinery spirals tightly around the room at different levels, and looks like a well-organized pile.

As we left the catwalk for the factory floor, we breathed in the acrid odor of hops blended with the doughy scent of yeast. The floor was cheerfully bustling with the clanging of a thousand bottles, and an actual steam whistle to announce breaks. Rock music was pumping, and the workers were ribbing each other as they loaded case after case of empties onto the conveyor belt. Over the years, the workers have found all kinds of weird after-party junk in the boxes of empties. Lots and lots of photos, some love letters, a pocket knife, even money have all met their end at the Steam Whistle factory.

The iconic Steam Whistle bottle is one of the most durable on the market. To calculate how many times a bottle gets refilled, a Steam Whistle delivery driver marked a bottle with a rubber band and sent it through the sanitizer system over and over and over for a month. The bottle was filled and emptied (no problem finding volunteers to help empty!), dropped (it bounced), clanged and knocked around until the brewers lost interest. Before they put the experiment to rest, the bottle had been refilled nearly 40 times. Most big breweries average about 15 laps.

So Helene, the E-I-C, and I decided to restage the driver’s refilling experiment. We placed two marked bottles on the conveyor belt and watched as they marched single file into an industrial bottle washer. Inside they were blasted with a food grade caustic solution at 120 degrees C. The force of the spray also blasted out foreign objects like cigarette butts, wads of gum, cocktail napkins with phone numbers scrawled in lipstick, and trillion dollar bills (as if).

An anxious 15 minutes later, the bottles emerged from the washer disoriented but refreshed. Dripping, they continued their long march past two inspection checkpoints. The bottles parade in front of a square light box so they can be double-checked for any objects still kicking around inside. Apparently, folded bottle caps are almost impossible to remove. Sybil told us the inspectors work in ½ hour shifts so they don’t go blind or mad. One gritty old-timer did shifts twice or three times as long as that and with the focus of a Buckingham Palace guard.

After the station, the bottles disappeared into a tangle of machinery, twisting in and out of sight. After the bottles were filled but before they were sealed, each bottle got a quick blast of steam to push out the oxygen, a process known as fobbing. Finally, the bottles emerged from their ordeal full of beer, their necks now sporting crimped metal caps.

The bottles swung past another inspection station, and marched confidently to the finish. We clambered behind them, cheering and whooping, nearly bursting with pride. “There they are!” we shouted. “Those two are ours!” Though they’ve seen it thousands of times, even the workers seemed to get excited when our bottles reached the finish line. We grabbed them just before they were dropped into boxes and carted away, then gleefully compared our watches to the timestamp on the side of the bottle.

Like most industrial foods, there is a complex process behind the product you consume. The bottle you sip from today may have been dozens of lips before yours, depending on the brand. Just because it is a simple object, a design as old as glass, doesn’t mean that its life outside your fridge is meaningless. The humble beer bottle drives an underground economy of scavengers, helps fund a large scale municipal recycling program, sets the benchmark for corporate environmentalism, and best of all is a vessel for sweet sweet beer. What have you done lately?

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: All good bottles go to heaven - Diana Wilson follows the bottle on its journey back to you
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