Why One-Way Beer Containers Emerged

Economic and Industrial Background

Since the 1970s there have been periodic attempts to pass federal U.S. legislation commonly referred to as the “bottle bill”. A Bottle Bill Resource Guide summarizes the current position and describes two bills now before Congress.

As of mid-2021, 10 states, and Guam, have enacted bottle bill legislation. Oregon was first in 1972, characteristically an “ecology” state, to use a term popular in the ’70s. 

Container-deposit legislation typically requires:

… the collection of a monetary deposit on beverage containers (refillable or non-refillable) at the point of sale and/or the payment of refund value to the consumers. When the container is returned to an authorized redemption center, or retailer in some jurisdictions, the deposit is partly or fully refunded to the redeemer (presumed to be the original purchaser) ….

The object is to encourage recycling and reduce litter, which increases the longevity of landfill sites.

For Ontario, we have the Deposit Return Program described in the website of The Beer Store. The program, regardless where the beer is retailed, is operated by The Beer Store, owned mainly by the large national brewers.

In 1974 the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, via its Environmental Sub-Committee, conducted hearings to discuss passage of a national bottle law, which would apply to interstate shipments. It was the first of many subsequent attempts.

This presentation by Frank Sellinger, then head of engineering at Anheuser-Busch, offers a capsule of beer container use since Repeal (1933). It serves well, in fact, as a short history of the American brewing industry since 1933. See in particular at 111-130.

Sellinger had observed the industry for almost 40 years, and seen great changes. He laid out the industrial and technological background that caused the emergence of new containers such as the can and stubby.

I would make these points by way of summary, but to understand the full picture read presentation in toto:

  1. As in pre-Prohibition times, bottled beer was comparatively unimportant post-1933, representing 25% of all beer consumption.
  2. The remainder was draft beer, produced for the most part by local or “semi-regional” breweries. In general the American beer business was comparatively small.
  3. In the 1930s even most bottled beer was consumed on premises (bars, etc.). Relatively little was transported home, so container type mattered less at that period.
  4. Costs to ship and obtain return of heavy glass bottles made national or “shipping brewers” such as Anheuser-Busch less competitive than local brewers.
  5. Such glass was over-engineered to ensure mainly prolonged re-use.
  6. The development of lighter, one-way flat-top cans and bottles increased national brewer competitiveness. Shipping costs were reduced and the return stage eliminated.
  7. While one-way containers cost more, which had to be passed on, national brewers absorbed part of the differential (extra cost less saving from elimination of return).
  8. Local brewers were not able to, they simply added to their price full increased cost of one-way containers.
  9. Due to national brewers being newly competitive with local brewing as mentioned, local brewers increasingly departed the market.
  10. The war significantly impacted postwar buying habits.
  11. Soldiers during the war became familiar with national brands, hence were not as wed to local names as before the war.
  12. They also became accustomed to the one-way cans and bottles sent to the theatres during the war.* They continued to buy beer in this format in peacetime.
  13. Homemakers did as well for their own convenience.
  14. Industry concentration ramped up significantly after the Korean War. This had been delayed by Depression, also high demand for beer during WW II which kept less competitive brewers in business.
  15. The contemporary (1974) appeal of the one-way container reflected primarily consumer preference.

Reading his remarks as a whole, I would conclude national brewer business strategies were likely a greater spur to development and adoption of new lighter beer containers than consumer preference.

Putting it a different way, once national brewers committed heavily to non-returnable containers, consumer habits followed suit, rather than the reverse.

By 1974 87% of Anheuser-Busch production was in one-way containers.

This background helps appreciate why the beer can and stubby bottle emerged. As well, Sellinger’s presentation is a valuable précis of American brewing development for forty years post-Repeal.

*The stubby design was sidelined during WW II as I discussed earlier, but large numbers of “packie” bottles were shipped to the troops during the war. The packie was a variant of the stubby. See again study I cited in recent posts on non-returnable beverage container development since the 1930s.



2 thoughts on “Why One-Way Beer Containers Emerged”

  1. In the US, even in states that have deposit laws, bottles are almost always single fill packages, going to a glass recycler (to be crushed) or directly to a landfill. This is the situation in NY. When the bottle deposit was implemented here, I noticed an immediate decrease in roadside trash. A small legacy brewer in the US, Straub of PA, maintains a deposit bottle refilling program on site. It’s notable that deposits on packages are not required in PA. In Oregon, where deposits are required, refillable bottles had essentially disappeared, with a lonely holdout using Canadian refillables. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/09/17/645548896/oregon-launches-first-statewide-refillable-bottle-system-in-u-s. A new system for refillables is discussed in the article. It has challenges, and it’s not clear that it will succeed (one issue being that an early supporter was Widmer, which is now fully owned by ABInbev).

    • Thanks Arnold, all good to know.

      We pay a deposit here in Ontario, the particular feature here is, you return bottles for recycling to The Beer Store even if you buy them, say, at LCBO. It works pretty well.



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