The Friends of the Earth (FoE) ‘bottle dump’ in London, 1971. This became a famous image and helped establish FoE as a leading campaign group of the time.
I am not alone in advising anyone starting out in campaigns, that it is essential to be able to communicate the campaign in both pictures and stories. Blindingly obvious as that may seem, it’s not how people from many walks of life get trained to think, for instance in science, law, business, economics or politics.
But ask most people how they think a campaign is going, and they will tend to use a heard-of-it/ seen-it shortcut. As in, that must be a success “it got so much publicity”, or “everyone’s talking about it online”, or less positively, “you don’t see much of them these days so …”.
In other words they use Kahneman’s heuristics to create an opinion using limited information. What’s easy to recall seems more convincing. What can be recalled may be taken to be representative. What we see is taken to be all there is to see. This is one reason why images are so ‘powerful’: they prompt us to instantly ‘make up our minds’ on this basis. After that, the ‘consistency effect’ kicks in and we stick to our initial conclusion.
Fame is Right
A famous image creates its own credibility. People tend to assume that more prominent or famous organisations are the more successful ones, for example that higher profile companies will be richer. We also tend to assume that when ‘an issue disappears from the headlines’, any problem associated with it has more than likely been solved or at least got better (a bias to positive inference on closure – or ‘no news must be good news’).
As anyone involved with campaigning throughout the duration of a ‘disaster’ may have experienced, this is often compounded by the media’s tendency as a story-teller to want to justify no-longer telling the story, leading to excessive reassurance (the seas are once again blue, the oil has gone; the people are eating again, the aid is flowing, rebuilding has begun, etc).
Winning the Media War, Losing the Campaign
It is also widely known amongst campaigners, who often sit upstream in the story-flow, that it is quite possible to win the media war and lose the campaign.
What looks like huge success early on, may make this more likely, particularly if it either ‘derails’ the campaign from a critical path it needed to follow, or convinces potential supporters that they are ‘not needed’. (Of course if you don’t have a critical path leading to your final objective, in which one step has to be to be achieved, to reach the next, you may not notice this is happening). I would be interested to hear about any cases you may have come across (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Social media prominence – the number of tweets, likes etc – is essentially the same as ‘news media’ coverage in this respect because both imply ‘attention’. It is human nature (ie Kahneman’s ‘system 1’) to rationalise, or back-fit a rise or fall in attention, to reasons that can plausibly, and just as important satisfyingly, explain it.
Because ‘the public’ will not understand ‘the issue’ as policy communities and campaigners do, it is in the interests of campaigns to try and avoid this because the reasons that people use to ‘fill in the gaps’, come from beliefs they already hold as immutably true (eg values or values laden). As Walter Lipmann pointed out, people make up their minds before they define the facts (System 1 not 2), and once they have made up their minds, it is very hard work to get them to change (asking them to use System 2 to overturn System 1).
Schhh … you Know Who ?
Late 1960s Schweppes advertising campaign
In 1971 ‘environmentalism’ was newly minted and a hot topic. Concern about the planet and our impact on it was fiercely debated. The ‘issue’ was often framed as planet versus ‘progress’, or modernity. On the one side stood hippies and concerned scientists, and on the other, business, plastic, CFCs, consumption and, ‘getting ahead’.
So when in England, the popular and aspirational tonic water brand Schweppes, which had been running a successful marketing campaign based on the onomatopoeic slogan ‘Schhh, you know who …’, announced that it would no longer use returnable, re-usable bottles (which carried a deposit) and instead go over to modern, conveniently disposable ones, Friends of the Earth was presented with a campaign gift, which it seized.
FoE returned thousands of the ‘non-returnable’ bottles to the front doorstep of the drinks company. This got huge press coverage, became an iconic image and made Friends of the Earth into environmental heroes of the time. It is often used as the iconic British environmental campaign image of the era. When in 2011 The Guardian newspaper wanted to ask the public to share their images of the environmental movement over the previous forty years, the doorstep action was the image they picked.
Despite the success of the action in creating an image, it did nothing to change Schweppes’s decision. Returnable (also now known as re-usable, multi-trip or refillable) bottles, progressively disappeared from British shops and lives. Returnable bottles ceased to be an ‘issue’. Today, the CPRE or Council for the Protection of Rural England, is trying, with very little attention by comparison, to revive it with a campaign for a ‘Deposit Return System’ in England.
So what happened, and does it hold any lessons for campaigners today ?
An Unexpected Impact
FoE was only a nascent organisation at the time but it exploited a moment when there was an action-deficit, and filled it. Robert Lamb, in Promising the Earth, quotes Richard Sandbrook talking about Graham Searle: “Graham – bless his heart – stood up at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where they were holding a seminar about the environment, and said ‘Well I’m going to take my bottles Saturday morning over to Cadbury Schweppes.’ Schweppes had just announced they weren’t going to use returnable bottles for their drinks products and people had been vocal about this through the seminar”.
FoE then did three ‘bottle dumps’. A lot of gin and tonic had to be drunk by Pete Wilkinson (later to become famous at Greenpeace) and others, to get the required number of bottles but “the first was enough: we got 50 yards of bottles quite closely set. It made a terrific photograph” said Sandbrook.
FoE office manager Angela Potter and volunteers 1970s. Two of the posters read ‘Keep Off the Glass’ and ‘The Soft Drinks People’ [Schweppes]. © FoE/McKenzie From Promising the Earth by Robert Lamb, Routledge 1996
The resulting coverage attracted thousands of supporters to join the newly formed Friends of the Earth (FoE). Although the organisation had many ‘larger’ concerns (eg energy), the bottles action energised FoE. Local groups were forming rapidly and picketing Schweppes distribution depots gave them a local focus. It was easily understood, it crystallised two opposing ‘paradigms’, it dealt with a brand and choices that mattered in the shops, pubs and living rooms, and it was tactically novel. Hard to believe now but in Britain it was a ‘first’.
Most of all though it ‘put Friends of the Earth on the map’. The unexpected impact was not measured in terms of the impact on the problem of returnable bottles. ‘It forced no change’ said Lamb but ‘that didn’t seem to matter … it set the fledgling organisation up as a credible voice in any environmental controversy from now on’. Fair enough: an organisational rather than a campaign gain and one FoE walked into by luck rather than design. But could it also have been a campaign success ? It’s impossible to say for sure at this distance but perhaps.
Recycling: The Diversion
What’s for sure is that Friends of the Earth then went on to became almost synonymous with ‘recycling’, and strategically, that was a diversion.
Walt Patterson who was for years a major force at FoE tells me:
‘We weren’t trying at that point to run a ‘recycling’ campaign at all. I don’t think we had even heard the term. We were advocating ‘reuse’. The industry people, once they realized the threat we posed, introduced ‘recycling’ as their fall-back position – still leaving the onus on the user, and still wasting a lot of energy compared to reuse, even after taking into account transport and cleaning. As we gradually came to understand, the big opponents were not the drink manufacturers nor the bottle makers but the retailers, especially the supermarkets, who would have had to run the reuse programme.’
After the picketing at distribution depots, FoE went on to organise with National Packaging Days. From the start , some of it’s local groups took the bottle dump as a cue to start demonstration recycling projects, which eventually led FoE into large-scale initiatives such as ‘Recycling City Partnership’, many of which spun off green businesses and led into mitigation and problem reduction rather than the more ambitious option of returning and re-using whole bottles.
Whatever it’s origin, the well-known ‘waste hierarchy’ of reduce (or prevention), re-use, and then recycling (above ‘energy recovery’, above disposal) has been a guide in sustainability and enshrined in many policies from the 1970s onwards. The bottle campaign was reuse, recycling was a lower order strategy.
Whatever Happened to Returnable Bottles ?
You can still buy Schweppes tonic in returnable tonic bottles in Britain (the brand was sold to Dr Pepper Snapple Group in 2008) but it seems only those imported from Germany. So good luck taking them back*. Unlike Britain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have had government rules and regulations requiring forms of ‘deposit return schemes’
I haven’t yet found any data on the demise of the returnable tonic bottle but a 2009 report for Defra’s Waste and Resources Evidence Programme states that the share of refillables in packaging soft drinks in Britain, declined from 46% to 10% between 1980 and 1989, while the proportion of returnable beer bottles shrank from 33% to 0.3% between 1961 and 2006. In 1975, only 7.5% of the UK beer market used one-trip containers, yet in 2000 this had increased to 36.5%
The slow motion failure of the campaign for returnables in England is played out in the graph from a WRAP report, above (beer bottles). Friends of the Earth were originally trying to expand the orange bit.
Even use of returnable milk bottles (Britain is still notable for doorstep milk deliveries, and at one point some dairies even took back tonic bottles) declined from 94% to 10% between 1974 and 2006.
English returnable milk bottles: endangered ?
In 2007 British drinks manufacturer Britvic ‘pulled the plug on its reusable bottle scheme for pubs and clubs’. It claimed disposables were ‘more appealing’ to consumers and played up their ‘recyclability’. The ‘last ever’ returnable version of the iconic glass Coca Cola bottle in the US rolled off the production line in 2012
Actual re-use of non-milk bottles in the UK is now tiny, for example by Reno Wine (make your way to their store in Wymondham, Norfolk). The stand-out larger scale British ‘success story’ is Scotland’s soft drinks firm AG Barr, which makes ‘Irn Bru’. It has offered deposit refunds on its glass bottles for 140 years. It’s website says ‘During 2009 nearly 7 in every 10 returnable glass bottles was returned for refilling at our Cumbernauld plant. In the last 2 years the bottle deposit has increased from 20p to 30p during which time we have seen a 3% increase in bottle returns’.
In England, Harveys Brewery based in Lewes, Sussex, uses returnable bottles. Good old Harveys ! Maybe I should have stayed in Lewes. My East Anglian equivalent, Adnams, may be green in other ways but does not seem to use returnable bottles.
Harveys also state: ‘80% of Harveys beer is consumed no more than 50 miles from Lewes. We have turned away trade if it’s too far away’. And there’s the rub. Since Schweppes got off the hook, recycling has become the dominant option, not reuse, and every investment made in the recycling system has embedded that choice. Harvey’s green cred is probably based on values and marketing (the green-ness of its drinkers) but to get an English outcome more like that in say Denmark or Germany, we’d need regulation to force supermarkets, pub chains and other bottle users to change their ways. And for that to happen we’d need political will, and for that we’d need public demand, and for that we’d need campaigns.
It’s doable. In countries where ‘deposit schemes’ exist, they work. Rates of return for beer bottles in Denmark, where there is a refundable deposit and non-glass containers were for many years prohibited, have been as high 98%, with each bottle being reused over 30 times.
It seems that the Westminster UK government (though perhaps not the Scottish government) has given up on returnable bottles, perhaps preferring to fudge the issue and take the easy route of voluntary agreements and going along with the preferred options of the packaging and established ‘recycling’ industry. It’s advisers WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) have published reports on ‘single trip or reusable packaging’, on the practicalities of using beer delivery vehicles to take back bottles, and on reducing the weight of beer bottles. It’s report on wine bottles says: ‘The environmental and business pros and cons of single trip versus returnable bottles are still open for debate. However, suffice to say that the observable trend to single trip containers has led to a reduction in average container weights, although some legacy effects remain, wherein design features associated with returnable bottles have been retained in single trip bottles. This therefore offers an opportunity to explore redesign leading to reduced container weight’. Of course this means designing bottles which probably cannot be re-used.
The current British government has cut funding to WRAP by two thirds. WRAP relies on projects developed and funded mainly by industry, eg the glass and glass recycling and ‘waste’ industries and their customers. This obviously has advantages for projects designed to maximise potential efficiencies within the business models they want to pursue but is hardly a recipe for a public interest watchdog role, nor is it likely to finance projects to consider significant changes to the industry. No wonder perhaps. that none of WRAP’s detailed reports seem to have anything positive to say about Britain introducing a statutory scheme for deposits on bottles.
Major NGOs seem to have adopted a similar position. Resource resilient UK: A report from the Circular Economy Task Force sponsored by the Green Alliance, also with the heavy involvement of similar waste-industry players, has nothing to say about returnable, reusable or refillable bottles.
A campaigner who has worked with FoE more recently commented to me that the
‘problem with the issue is that I think it would be very difficult to get it [a deposit scheme] to happen in the UK (at least England), and I’m not sure the benefits would merit this expenditure of effort. This is one reason why … FOE instead went down the line of getting rid of residual waste/maximising reuse & recycling’.
Which no doubt makes great sense but maybe misses the potential.
CPRE may lack the campaign clout to exploit it but the ‘common sense’ appeal of reusing perfectly good bottles rather than crushing them up for road aggregate or even wasting huge amounts of energy to melt them down into identical new ones, still has public resonance. CPRE President Bill Bryson, an American much loved in England for his gently mocking travel books, perhaps has a better common touch. It is, he told the Daily Telegraph in 2010, “nonsense” for the UK not to have a bottle deposit scheme, pointing out that they were still popular in Australia and the US (and Canada and about ten other countries).
CPRE commissioned consultants Eumonia to study the issue. Their report Have We Got the Bottle? Implementing a Deposit Refund Scheme in the UK, calculated that a 15p deposit for small bottles and a 30p deposit for large bottles (including cans, glass bottles and PET plastic bottles) would achieve a return rate of 90% and save each household £7 in litter cleaning costs, as well as saving over 600,000 tonnes of carbon pollution. In 2011 CPRE calculated such a scheme could create 3 – 4,000 jobs.
A Renaissance for Returnables ?
It seems to me that Friends of the Earth were probably right all along, and maybe they’re going to be proved right but won’t be in the game to pick up the credit. Back in 1971, tiny, hopeful and chaotic, it was left up to them to state the obvious. Forty years later it’s the likes of the World Economic Forum which is ‘taking up the bottles’ as it were:
‘Returnable glass bottle systems are a signature example of closed regional and local loops, and give bottling companies full control of their materials flows. For instance, South African Breweries (SAB), the local subsidiary of SABMiller, currently sells more than 85% of volume in a closed loop returnable bottle system. If this were converted to a one-way packaging and distribution system, the country’s glass output would have to be doubled just to cater for the increase in demand for beer bottles. Modelling shows that in beer beverage packaging, the economics of these return systems are far superior to those of one-way systems, even compared with 100% recyclable PET bottles.
So perhaps not all is lost for the returnable bottle.
SABMiller is a global brewing giant headquartered in London, and one of many large companies taking ‘sustainability’ seriously because it makes good business sense. It likes returnable bottles, particularly if you look at emerging markets. 49 per cent of its beer is sold in returnable packaging, which it says is much more carbon efficient throughout its lifecycle than cans, PET bottles or non-returnable bottles.
It’s 2014 Sustainability Report said:
“Around half of our beer is sold in returnable packaging. For example, in Latin America the super-returnable bottles used by Bavaria in Columbia are refilled an average of 44 times. Now we are targeting improvements in Europe, where we already have 700 million returnable glass bottles in circulation but where there are large differences between markets in returnable bottle penetration and consumer behaviour”.
“There are tensions. A recent study in Europe examined the potential barriers to bottles being returned: some consumers are very loyal and committed to using returnable bottles, while others find it inconvenient to return empty bottles to the retailer”. Territory surely, for campaigners ?
From a different direction, there is now more interest in ‘re-use’ in Britain, driven by values-based campaigns to make re-use desirable (eg Campaign Strategy Newsletter Prospectors and swishing in #66, the ‘New Thrift’ in Resolving Koo’s Paradox, and Ideal Home, Mainstreaming Change in #79), as well as EU and national pressure to reduce waste and carbon footprints, and revisiting of many of FoE’s original ideas, a lot of chatter about the ‘Circular Economy’.
A 2014 study (p 133) into the potential of the ‘circular economy’ by the Institute for European Environmental Policy for the European Commission, reported that the German system of a 25 cents deposit fee on beverage packaging ‘has provided motivation for high return rates (98%) [and] for beer it helped re-usable packaging increase from 68% to about 90%. It also says that ‘A cost reduction of 20% per hectolitre of beer sold to consumers would be possible across all markets by shifting from disposable to reusable glass bottles, which would lower the cost of packaging, processing, and distribution’. (p 56)
A Campaign for Cheaper Beer ? That has to be a selling point.
England no longer has a watchdog on waste. It’s only mobilisation of public opinion which is likely to shift UK government policy. David Cameron yielded to public pressure from the ‘Break the Bag Habit’ campaign to levy a charge on public bags in England, although only after being confronted by children campaigning on behalf of albatrosses, along with proof that a similar charge had worked in Wales (an 80% drop in plastic bag use), Scotland and Northern Ireland.
England does not ‘rock’, so much as lag behind the times. Time for Friends of the Earth to return to the fray.
*I do know an English delivery driver who does just that. He has a crate in the back of his van, brings his favourite German beer back to England, drinks it with friends, and takes the empties back on his next job to Germany.