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Will the Real Litterbug Please Stand Up?

On October 13, 1953, executives from beer, soda, chewing gum, cigarette, and candy companies, as well as the packaging and chemical industries, launched a new organization: Keep America Beautiful. As The New York Times would write a year later, the group called itself “a national public service organization for the elimination of litter.”

While the public-facing conceit was that the group would launch a “drive against litter,” the organization was really developed to push back against the environmental movement’s increasing pressure on industry to clean up its act. One of Keep America Beautiful’s early PR successes was coining the term “litterbug” and having it go, in today’s parlance, viral. In the organization’s narrative, the litterbugs weren’t Anheuser Busch or Coca-Cola or Phillip Morris; the litterbugs were you and me.

The same year Keep America Beautiful was founded, Vermont passed the nation’s first version of a bottle bill that banned selling beer in non-refillable bottles. The industry lobbied heavily against it, and four years later it was dead.

Ever since, soda companies have been lobbying “relentlessly to shift environmental burdens to taxpayers,” explains award-winning author Marion Nestle in her new book Soda Politics. Fighting bottle and deposit bills, which typically place refundable deposits on beverage containers to incentivize recycling and reuse, has been one prominent strategy. Soda companies quickly realized “one-way” cans and bottles can be more profitable: Once sold to a consumer, containers are no longer the company’s responsibility, whereas bottle bills distribute the responsibility. The American Beverage Association, the trade association for the soda industry, naturally calls these bills a “misguided policy choice.”

“Bottle bills are antiquated policies that have no significant impact on the environment,” the association wrote in 2015 while lobbying against a Massachusetts bill. That’s a nice spin on the truth: Where bottle bills are now in place, including 11 US states, recycling rates average 60 percent. In some states, like Vermont, they can hit an impressive 97 percent. In places without them, recycling rates can average as low as 24 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

Of course, the environmental impact of soda extends far beyond the can or plastic bottle you toss in the garbage. It also includes the resources used to give soda its signature sweetness, primarily corn syrup and sugarcane. Sugarcane production poses a major environmental threat. According to the World Wildlife Fund, sugar plantations destroy biodiverse habitat, and growers often use extensive amounts of irrigation water and chemicals.

Then there are the emissions. In 2012, the Sierra Club estimated that carbon emissions associated with production and distribution of Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper’s Snapple Group were 11.7 million metric tons that year, equivalent to the emissions from nearly 2.5 million passenger cars driven for a year. And don’t forget all that water used in soda production. While Coke-funded studies have found it takes “only” 70 liters of water to make every liter of Coca-Cola, independent researchers have pegged the ratio much higher. According to estimates by Marion Nestle based on data from the University of Twente Water Centre in the Netherlands, it takes between 340 and 620 liters of water to produce one liter of soda. This includes indirect and direct water use.

In light of all these environmental impacts, it seems reducing waste with simple, proven policy solutions like bottle bills would be something that everyone, even industry, could accept. Instead, soda companies are battling bottle bills in the United States and around the world.

Still, environmentalists have been pushing back, and in some cases winning. In New South Wales, for example, Greenpeace activists recently organized to defend a bottle-deposit bill against a well-funded industry campaign to defeat it. Among other actions, Greenpeace staged a banner drop on an iconic 40-year-old Coke billboard in Sydney. Though the police stopped the Greenpeace climbers before they could unfurl their 30-meter banner depicting Coca-Cola trashing Australia, the action gained local media coverage and helped shape the narrative: It’s not the citizens driving the waste problem; it’s Coke. The bottle bill passed this spring.

As an avid recycler, one who has even trained my toddler what the blue bins are for, I know we can each do our part. But we can go beyond just tossing our waste into the right bin: We can join together to defend public policy that puts the burden on the real litterbug, corporations like the soda giants and beer behemoths that for too long have shirked their responsibility.

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