The Ontario Beer Store is a model for the circular economy

Ontario Beer Store
Public Domain Ontario Beer Store/ Toronto Public Library

It's being killed the name of "convenience."

For years on TreeHugger, I have been talking about Ontario's Beer Store, previously Brewers Retail, as a model to be emulated. Since 1927, the beer companies owned these stores where you could buy your beer in returnable bottles, and then take them back to the place where you bought them in a sturdy box once known as a "Scarborough Suitcase" after a part of town where people were reputed to drink a lot of beer.

The stores weren't lovely, but they were very effective at collecting, washing and refilling the bottles. It was one of the world's best recovery systems, getting back 98 percent of the bottles and refilling them an average of 25 times. Long before the term became vogue, it was a model for a circular economy, used a fraction of the energy and created a fraction of the waste. None of this pretence of "recycling" bottles, where so much ground glass goes into landfill or roadbeds.

mckenzie brothersTake off, eh?/Promo image

There have been pressures on it; cans started taking a bigger share. The standard bottle that the Mackenzie brothers are holding, used by every brewer, gave way to different bottles. Some beer got sold in big grocery stores, but the system still worked, and the Beer Store was investing a lot of money making the stores nicer, as part of a contract signed with the last Liberal government in 2015. The Beer Store reports:

For 91 years, The Beer Store has forged a path to responsibly manage our own materials – including any handling, sorting, transportation, and processing associated with it. Using this model, we continue to work to prevent valuable materials going to landfill and reliance on tax-funded recycling.

Every container counts© The Beer Store

But there is a new Premier of Ontario, and he is obsessed with beer. He is tearing up that agreement so that beer can be sold in corner stores. In the very first sentence of the report, it says that it is all about "providing choice and convenience." The only time the report even mentions the bottle return process, it complains about it:

Despite the shopping experience, consumers must go to TBS locations to return their empties and get their deposit back. Their exclusive right to collect empties is inconvenient for consumers.

beer refill ratesLloyd Alter with info from Heather Rogers/CC BY 2.0

The problem with this is that there is always a price to be paid for convenience. The reason we got our linear economy is that it was convenient for everyone to have disposable containers and throw them away. Convenient has always been a synonym for waste; it is convenient for retailers not to have to deal with returns, convenient for consumers to just throw things away. The entire linear system runs on convenience.

No doubt they will say that other countries sell beer in returnable containers, but corner stores are not going to want to give up the space to store empty bottles. The beer store also now gets paid to take back all the wine and spirit bottles; who will do that? All in the name of "convenience."

When disposable bottles were introduced for soft drinks, the stores were supposed to keep selling returnable bottles, but over time they disappeared. Now, with corner store sales, more beer will be sold in BPA-lined cans because they take up less space. Single-use bottles will become more popular, shifting the burden to the municipalities who are having trouble with the glass they get now.

Many people believe that the Beer store was an "Ontario anachronism." But from an environmental perspective, it was a model of the circular economy to be emulated, true producer responsibility, taking back what they sold and reusing it. And it will be destroyed, all in the name of "convenience."

The Ontario Beer Store is a model for the circular economy
It's being killed the name of "convenience."

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