Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for the Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

The Future of the Glass Bottles – Refilling or Recycling

The Future of the Glass Bottles – Refilling or Recycling
26.04.2016 | Boris Borchev

A few days ago, while sorting a pile of glass bottles at home for recycling and for returning, the following question arose in my mind: Why it is so complicated? Some of the bottles were reusable and supposed to be returned to the retailer in order to refund the container deposit. It’s not that simple, though, because the different companies are selling their products through different retailers. The stores do not accept reusable containers from products that they do not sell. So I have to find the precise retailer for every reusable bottle type. And then another questions arose: Why aren’t all bottles identical and reusable… Like in the old days?

Using Standard Identical Bottles

Discarding containers of milk, water, beer, soft drinks etc. after just one use is a relatively new concept. Before World War II, nearly all packaged liquids were sold in refillable glass bottles. Recently, many reusable bottles have been replaced with containers designed for single use:  less expensive plastic bottles, thinner glass bottles and aluminum cans. Nowadays very few products could be found in the stores in reusable glass containers. The glass containers are recycled and not reused. All we know, however, is that reusing sits higher on the waste hierarchy than recycling. The current European average recycling rate is estimated to be 54 % and the reuse rate is estimated to be 7 %. Can reusing be more attractive than it is now?

Imagine that all companies are using standard identical bottles – how easier would it be if the empty reusable standard bottles could be returned to any store or any other collecting place where afterwards the bottles could be processed and transported back to the beverage company for sanitization and refilling. And how many resources and energy would be saved. Standardizing the bottles will affect the consumer’s behavior making the return of the bottles easier and it will also increase the return rates.

Why Reusing is Problematic for Beverage Companies?

Basically, the organization of the collecting and shipment of empty bottles is shared between the beverage companies and the retailers. They avoid this process because the collecting, sorting and transportation of the empty reusable bottles require special facilities, storage area and some labor efforts.

Using standard bottles could simplify the collecting and sorting processes as the bottles will be absolutely identical. Storing and shipment will be simplified as well since only a few types of containers will be available. And the return shipment will be to the local company who is the consumer of this type of packaging – for example to the local brewery.

Imagine you are in Madrid and you wish to receive your favorite soft drink or beer produced in Germany. It is obvious that returning the empty bottle back to Germany is meaningless. Now, however, imagine the use of standard bottles all over EU or even all over the world. You will receive your favorite German drink in Madrid but the bottle will be reused in Spain by the local beverage company.

The sanitization of contaminated bottles is harder and messier in comparison to the sanitization of new bottles but having in mind the benefits from saved resources and energy the additional expense is worth it.

 Benefits from the Standardization of the Packaging

Refilling leads to the use of less energy for extracting raw materials and manufacturing new bottles. Refillable bottles that average 25 trips will consume 93 percent less energy than one-way glass bottles that deliver the same amount of beverage1.

The indicators for Global Warming Potential (in CO2 equivalent) and the use of energy (in MJ) for returnable glass bottles are the lowest for all types of containers (PET, aluminum, etc.), whereas these same indicators for one-way glass bottles are the highest.

Promoting the Usage of Standard Glass Containers

There exist systems for the reuse of glass containers and many initiatives, successful or not so successful, have been undertaken in different countries for promoting the use of refillable bottles. Currently, many companies are using refillable containers but the containers are not standard and even the different products of one company are packaged in containers of different shape, size and color. Having in mind the low return rate of the refillable containers, those containers are very close to the non-refillable containers in terms of waste of resources and energy. Promoting the system of standard glass containers could be beneficiary for all parties involved and for the society as a whole. For popularization of the system all stakeholders should be engaged, they should work together and everyone is to participate with their own efforts and by their own means.

  • NGO

NGOs can participate by establishing contacts with the beverage organizations and promoting the usage of standard bottles, negotiating the requirements of the companies and proposing improvements of the return system.

  • Government

Usually the Government enforces taxes on containers depending on their material and recycling potential. The taxes and fees should financially promote the beverages sold in refillable bottles rather than in one-way containers.

  • Companies

All companies declare their concern for the environment. Some companies already have their returnable bottles and system for refilling. Participating in the system with standard bottles could be beneficiary for them and could also present for them another market opportunity.

  • Society and Clients

The clients are the power that can influence companies to use or not standard bottles because the choice on the market is theirs. They are also responsible for refilling or recycling the empty glass packaging.

The Government, NGOs and even the companies through their advertisements should make efforts to educate the society about the advantages of reusing glass bottles.

In CASI we engage all groups of stakeholders to take part in the discussions and to provide their visions on the sustainable future. In CASI citizens have, for example, developed a vision on the research and decisions regarding Active Civil Society for Sustainable Development, and in particular, on the engagement of business actors for introducing Sustainability as a Core Business Objective. Public engagement in research, education and decisions is of paramount importance to our joined efforts, aimed to foster learning about the environment and sustainable consumption.

Consumers are the ones to decide the future of glass bottles – refilling or recycling.

P.S. This article is a result of the joint efforts of the BPM team at TechnoLogica. Special thanks to Zhivko Ivanov and Nadezhda Peneva.

Relevant themes: Resource efficiency, Environment, Public participation
Relevant tags: Technological innovation, Eco-innovation, Sustainable lifestyles, Sustainable materials management, Energy policy


  • Boris Borchev - TechnoLogica EAD (TL)

    Boris Borchev

    Boris Borchev has a PhD degree in business administration, with more than 12 years experience as a consultant in projects for business process improvement, IT systems implementation and development of e-government. He is a lecturer in courses for business process analysis and assistant professor at Sofia University.