Roadside Bottles: The Great American Beverage Crisis

Our nearest store is less than a mile away. Occasionally, my kids and I take a walk or bike ride there so they can have an ice cream. We run down a long hill and always bring a bag to collect the roadside trash. Each time we do this, we pick up more than 100 beverage containers. Why do Americans spend so much money on drinks when water out of the tap is, most often, clean and free? And why do we throw our drink containers out on the road? Here’s a general inventory of the kinds of beverage bottles we pick up:

Beverage Containers Picked Up on Just One Side of the Road. Photo © Liesl Clark

We find glass bottles including large and mini wine bottles, aluminum cans, box wine, plastic water and soda bottles, plastic cups with lids and straws, and single-use coffee cups. Why the need to have a drink while driving? If you’re on a long road trip, I can understand why you’d have a beverage by your side. But we live on an island 2 miles wide by 6 miles long and no single trip is very long. Why is the car the place where beverages must be consumed and then discarded? Surely, the beverages are not coming from pedestrians.

We Filled Our Bag With Bottles and Cans in a Matter of Minutes. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Keep America Beautiful campaign conducted a study of 240 roadways across the country and determined that there are approximately 6,729 pieces of litter per mile of roadway (on each side) in the United States. My road is certainly no exception and we could likely come up with that many pieces of litter along our little roadside. The study also found that the majority of roadside litter comes from motorists (53%) with pedestrians contributing some 23%.

My theory is that it’s less about the car and more about the road’s proximity to a convenience store. The shop is stocked with juices, sodas, coffee, and alcohol, so our road is hit with the litter from those who’ve just purchased a convenient drink. The Keep America Beautiful study found that roads near a convenience store tended to have 11% more litter. No surprise. And beverages figure high in the overall item percentages.

Here’s the depressing statistic: 40 – 60% of roadside waste comes from beverage containers. Why? We live in a country where tap water is readily available and quite drinkable. If you’re not convinced, go to any developing country and you’ll see how water out of a tap can threaten your life. Most of those containers are also recyclable, so if recycling were truly working in our great nation, we wouldn’t see any drink containers on our roadsides, right? The Environmental Working Group published a study that claims, “Every 27 hours Americans consume enough bottled water to circle the entire equator with plastic bottles stacked end to end.”

Litter, furthermore, costs taxpayers a hefty sum each year. According to the Keep America Beautiful stats on roadside litter, litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year.

Perhaps we need to require that each state has a bottle bill. At Oregon.gov, the statistics for the state’s beverage containers found along roadsides since the introduction of a bottle bill there are impressive: “In 1971, litter control was a primary reason for initiating the bottle bill.  Since then, the percentage of beverage containers among roadside litter has dropped from 40 percent to 6 percent.”

Kicking the convenience store single-use beverage fix is likely the best step an individual who wants to make a difference can take. That’s what I’ve done. When you discover the environmental impact of single-use beverage containers on the environment, a.k.a. the amount of energy , toxins, and virgin materials needed to produce that bottle or can that will likely go unrecycled, you might reconsider the need for that beverage. Bring your own bottle and fill ‘er up at the tap. Water is what your body needs. Save the wine and beer for your home, or dinner with friends, not your car. And if you’ve been out with your buddies and just want to get that stash of wine and beer out of your car to cut the clutter, find a dumpster or recycle bin, they’re usually right next to the convenience store where you bought the wine in the first place.

We Were Able to Recycle These Right Across From the Convenience Store. Photo © Liesl Clark

Single-use beverages and their containers are only benefiting the companies who manufacture them. American kids are over-consuming over-sweetened single-serving drinks and we have a juvenile obesity crisis to prove it. Who can blame kids, when according to this infographic, in 2008, Coca-Cola spent over $2.67 billion in advertising? Kids are their prime target.

My 9-Year-Old, Picking Up Your Wine and Beer Bottles Next to Our Driveway. Photo © Liesl Clark

I can tell you, from first-hand experience, that these roadside bottles are ending up in our watersheds and floating down into our oceans. Cars run over them and break them into smaller plastics, which also become part of our ocean ecosystem. The roadside ditches are filled with every kind of plastic and we know what’s in them washes downhill to our rivers, streams and seas. In my family, we consider recycling a last resort for our stuff as recycling requires more virgin materials to actually close the loop for things like plastic. We’re more about the other R’s, especially reducing and reusing. Reducing means refusing single-use disposables, taking action to pick up those that we find in the environment and bringing attention to them so others see their impact. Help curb our collective disposables habit by refusing them in the first place. Then move on to the next R and keep your reusable cup and bottle with you in your car for yet another laudable and sustainable R: Refill.

Klean Kanteen BPA-Free Water Bottles with custom The North Face Logo

5 thoughts on “Roadside Bottles: The Great American Beverage Crisis

  1. Liesl, right you are! I’m just as frustrated as you are. I truly admire your passion! Just today I was picking up some plastic bags on my way home, thinking about our Zero Waste approach, and me taking stuff from the street home. 😉

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  2. Growing up in Oregon in the 1970’s and ’80’s, I saw the positive effect of the bottle bill, but bottles were still out there. My parents made us kids walk the roadways and pick them up to raise money for ourselves. We did it! An ice cream cone at the local burger joint was 25 cents, we just needed 5 bottles or cans!

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    • Hi Stephanie! I have memories, too, of collecting cans and bottles in Vermont when I went to camp there. We loved the extra candy money it afforded us. My grandmother, if I recall this right, was instrumental in passing the bottle bill in Connecticut years ago. And my mom, in Massachusetts, carries on the family tradition and buys herself an ice cream every time she redeems her bottles and cans. Love that.

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