Tuesday 9 April 2019


About 900km to Cape Town and to Johannesburg

I went to school in a small town called Port Shepstone. That was a few decades back and some things were very different. We had no Internet or (until my last year of high school) TV.

Some things were a lot worse back then – it was the days of deep apartheid for example. So this is not all nostalgia – but we did have some things right in that era.

We had a carbonated drink factory and a local dairy. The local dairy did home deliveries in quite a wide area including the neighbouring village of Umtentweni, where I lived for a while.

Home delivery of milk is thankfully a thing of the past as it could only happen at an affordable price with exploitative wages.

Returnable not Recyclable
But the positive side of local bottling is that bottles were returnable. Even bigger brands like Coke and Castle (beer, for the ignorant) were bottled less than 150km away so returning bottles was practical.

Today, I live in a small town 130km from the nearest big city (Grahamstown, in the process of being renamed to Makhanda but Google Maps does not display the new name). Yet returning bottles is not feasible for most drinks because bottling happens so far away. When I examine labels, most are from Johannesburg and Cape Town, each about 900km away. That’s not counting imports.

Why not locally or on Port Elizabeth, not much further from here than Durban is from Port Shepstone? The low cost of oil has made it cheaper to move goods long distances from factory to consumer, but that “low” cost does not include the environmental harm done by burning fossil fuels. Nor does it count the cost of landfill.

Deposits on Containers
So what’s to be done?

Introducing mandatory deposits on bottles would cause a shake up of the industry.

It would force big manufacturers to decentralize. This would save a lot on fuel costs and increase employment – though costs may also rise. However, soft drinks and alcohol are not essentials. A small price increase to reduce environmental harm especially with more local jobs as a secondary effect would be worth it.

What are the environmental costs?

The obvious one is reducing waste in landfill. Returnable bottles, even if not taken back by the person consuming the drink, are a much more valuable commodity for trash pickers than recycling (the rate at time of writing for recyclable glass bottles is in the region of 20–30c per kg). That means fewer will land up in landfill. And recycling is not super-efficient either – a lot of energy is required.

A local product with reused bottles –
though in this case without a deposit
or cash value.
Deposits on containers will take time to enact – it is not on the agenda of any major political organization so it will require community pressure nationwide.

In the meantime something we can all do is reduce our dependence on unnecessary long-distance sourcing of discretionary purchases. Over here in Makhanda, we have a good local microbrewer, Featherstone. Unless you really don’t like their brew, it is the one to get because they take the bottles back and it’s local. It is significantly more expensive than the mass-market brands but so what? Drinking beer is good up to a point but drinking less will not do you harm.

That is one example – look for others. Read labels. Look for local products and support them. If they are not up to scratch, offer constructive feedback.

There is another advantage to relocalizing: it makes for a more resilient community, one that is less dependent on outside resources.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on articles more than 14 days old are moderated to discourage spam; any spam will be mercilessly deleted. While anonymous comments are permitted, real names are preferred to show good faith.

Billion Trees

Vast tracts of the Eastern and Western Cape were forested in colonial times and were clear cut for construction, ship building and furniture...