Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Determined to reduce public littering, the state of Oregon banned the use of nonrefillable containers for beer and soft drinks.

Summary of Event

On October 1, 1972, Oregon governor Thomas Lawson McCall signed a new law, the first of its kind in the United States, banning the use of nonrefillable containers for packaging soft drinks and beer. Following the passage of this legislation, beer and soft drink producers in Oregon were able to use only refillable glass bottles to distribute their products. Throwaway cans and bottles were prohibited. The law also required that consumers pay a refundable deposit on each returnable container. If the bottle was product-specific, such as the distinctively shaped Coca-Cola bottles, the consumer paid a five-cent deposit. Standardized containers usable by more than one bottler required only a two-cent deposit per bottle. The deposit provided an incentive to consumers to return beverage containers to stores instead of continuing to discard bottles on roadsides. Environmental awareness Antilittering legislation Oregon;bottle deposit law [kw]Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles (Oct. 1, 1972) [kw]Bans Nonrefillable Bottles, Oregon (Oct. 1, 1972) [kw]Nonrefillable Bottles, Oregon Bans (Oct. 1, 1972) [kw]Bottles, Oregon Bans Nonrefillable (Oct. 1, 1972) Environmental awareness Antilittering legislation Oregon;bottle deposit law [g]North America;Oct. 1, 1972: Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles[00890] [g]United States;Oct. 1, 1972: Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles[00890] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 1, 1972: Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles[00890] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 1, 1972: Oregon Bans Nonrefillable Bottles[00890] Johnson, Lady Bird McCall, Thomas Lawson Hatfield, Mark

This legislation was a response to increasing public concerns regarding roadside litter. The throwaway beer or soft drink can, first introduced in the 1930’s—no deposit, no return—had, by the early 1970’s, become a national disgrace. Touted as a convenience for consumers, the throwaway can or bottle was designed both to encourage the public to buy more beer and soda on each trip to the grocery store and, more important for industry, to reduce production costs for brewers and bottlers. Refillable glass bottles required more handling by the distributors than did throwaways. Not only did the full bottles have to be trucked from the bottling plants to the retail outlets, but the empties also had to be trucked back to the plant and washed for reuse. Every empty bottle picked up at an early stop on a distributor’s route took up space that could be more profitably occupied by additional product for retailers farther down the line. Refillable bottles required more handling than did throwaways, which meant more labor costs. The refillables were also at risk of breaking. Glass shatters; cans do not. From the viewpoint of the producer, throwaways made sense.

The fact that many consumers actually discarded the throwaways carelessly after emptying them of their contents came as an unpleasant but not wholly unexpected discovery to the beverage industry. Trash alongside roadways has been common since the dawn of civilization. The trails that wagons followed west in the nineteenth century became lined with pioneers’ discards. What was startling in the case of throwaway beverage containers was the sheer volume of the material. Beer cans by the highway became an eyesore that cost states millions of dollars annually in cleanup costs. State highway departments struggled to keep up with the growing piles of debris.

Picking up and disposing of roadside litter grew increasingly more expensive with each passing year. Trash pickup was a highly labor-intensive process. Cans and bottles had to be picked up one by one, bagged, and loaded onto trucks for transport to landfills. Highway departments enlisted the aid of the beverage industry, which began printing messages such as “Dispose of properly” and “Please don’t litter” on containers. Antilittering advertisements appeared in magazines and on television. These antilittering campaigns began many years before Oregon enacted the nation’s first bottle law but initially seemed to have little effect on public behavior. Businesses and civic organizations even resorted to distributing plastic litter bags for automobiles at county fairs and urban street festivals—litter bags that people would then apparently either forget to place in their cars or simply neglect to use.

These educational efforts were given a boost when, during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential administration, the president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, campaigned vigorously for a national highway beautification program. The First Lady became a strong advocate of beautification programs around the United States. Following her lobbying efforts, many states passed legislation to restrict the size, number, and placement of billboards along highways and eyesore laws requiring automobile salvage yards to erect fences to screen their operations from public view. These beautification campaigns also targeted littering. The advertising campaigns against littering were stepped up, and the fines levied against litterers were raised. Despite numerous attempts to educate the public against littering, trash in the form of beverage containers continued to fly out of car windows. Trash continued to accumulate on roadsides, often producing a visual blight as well as posing a health hazard in otherwise scenic areas.

Finally, by the early 1970’s, the attitude of the general public toward littering began to change. More people appeared ready to accept radical measures to combat the problem. A new respect for the environment had gradually evolved, culminating in April, 1970, with the first celebration of Earth Day. Earth Day

In Oregon, littering formed only one of the many environmental issues addressed by a progressive Republican administration under Governor Thomas Lawson McCall. McCall had steered more than one hundred environmental protection bills through the state legislature prior to the passage of the bottle law. Despite intense lobbying by the beverage industry, which claimed that only 20 percent of roadside litter consisted of throwaway containers such as cans, McCall succeeded in obtaining passage of the bottle bill. Studies by the Oregon Highway Department had revealed that as much as 62 percent of the volume of litter found along roadsides consisted of discarded beverage containers, data that sharply contradicted the beverage industry’s claim that a bottle law would have no appreciable effect on highway trash. The law went into effect on October 1, 1972. Within four months, the number of cans littering Oregon’s highways had dropped by 50 percent.


The success of Oregon’s bottle law in reducing waste along roadsides quickly led to the spread of similar laws in other states. In some cases, the resulting laws were more inclusive than those in Oregon; in others they were less so. In Michigan, for example, the law applied only to carbonated beverages—beer and soft drinks such as colas—but not to every beverage marketed in a particular type of container. Michigan also allowed a wide variety of recyclable materials to be used in manufacturing beverage containers, unlike the original Oregon bottle law, which required refillable bottles.

In contrast, the bottle law in the state of Maine applied not only to soft drinks such as colas but also to fruit juices and other beverages. The deposit per container was lower—only five cents compared to Michigan’s ten-cent deposit—but the law covered a much wider range of containers.

The bottling of additional beverages generated new debate about what state laws should and should not cover. Wine, for example, was exempted from the original legislation in many states. The popularity of wine coolers in the 1980’s, however, caused legislatures to review existing bottle laws. In some states, lawmakers chose to classify wine coolers as being subject to the same regulations as beer and soft drinks; in other states they chose not to do so.

In all cases, however, the beverage industry reacted to the introduction of bottle bills by expressing fierce opposition. Because the use of refillable bottles requires more labor and a slower production process than the use of throwaways, the industry consistently opposed bottle bills whenever they were suggested and despite overwhelming evidence that such laws are successful on several levels.

Bottle laws have been shown to reduce significantly the volume of roadside litter that state highway departments must collect. Consumers are less likely to discard containers for which they have paid deposits, and those containers that are discarded are often picked up by persons other than highway department crews. Following the passage of the first bottle laws, many retirees and other persons interested in extra income began picking up cans and bottles along roadsides. Although people gather and recycle aluminum cans in many states regardless of deposit laws, the interest in harvesting such aluminum is dependent on the market price of the metal. In states with bottle laws, plastic, glass, and aluminum containers are collected because of the cash incentive and the convenience of claiming the money at neighborhood stores rather than at recycling centers. Most people recognize the benefits of bottle laws: Roadsides are cleaner, and the beverage containers represent a new financial resource for some segments of the population.

Bottle laws also have a less obvious environmental impact: They reduce the demand for electricity by industry and reduce the need for various raw materials, such as bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is extracted. Studies in Oregon, for example, indicated that switching back to refillable bottles would result in a savings of nearly 1,320 billion British Thermal Units (BTU) annually. (A pint of water requires about 150 BTU to boil.) The combined energy savings would come from a variety of sources, such as the savings in hydroelectricity that would otherwise be used to process aluminum.

It is this energy-saving aspect of bottle laws that inspired environmental activists to advocate the passage of a national bottle law. Mark Hatfield, a Republican U.S. senator from Oregon in the 1970’s, introduced legislation in the Senate during the 1973 energy crisis that would have banned throwaway containers across the country. Although similar bills were introduced in the House of Representatives, a majority of members of Congress believed that such matters were more appropriately resolved by individual states, and the legislation failed to pass.

Immediately following passage of Oregon’s bottle law, both brewers and bottlers expressed concern that the new law would pose an economic hardship for some companies and could drive some out of business. Companies that had used only cans, for example, might not be able to make the change to bottles. An Environmental Protection Agency survey found that the Oregon canning industry lost 142 jobs but noted that those job losses could be offset by new jobs being created in the bottling industry. Fears that consumers would limit their purchases of beer and soft drinks proved groundless. Beer purchases following passage of the bottle law in Oregon remained unchanged, and soft drink consumption increased. Environmental awareness Antilittering legislation Oregon;bottle deposit law

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andres, Dorothy L. Disposal of Roadside Litter Mixtures. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993. Discusses the environmental aspects of trash management as well as the fundamentals of collection and disposal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carless, Jennifer. Taking Out the Trash: A No-Nonsense Guide to Recycling. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992. Contains suggestions for increased public participation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kimball, Debi. Recycling in America. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. Good overview of recycling legislation in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Charles. Price Comparison of Beer and Soft Drinks in Refillable and Nonrefillable Containers. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Protection Agency, 1976. Examines the economic arguments for and against bottle laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Recycling and the Consumer. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1979. A consumer guide to recycling.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Adam S., David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg. Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Authors compare four recycling programs in Chicago and evaluate whether or not recycling can realize sustainable community development.

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Categories: History