Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling

Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling

Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling

Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling

Synopsis

Consider an empty bottle or can, one of the hundreds of billions of beverage containers that are discarded worldwide every year. Empty containers have been at the center of intense political controversies, technological innovation processes, and the modern environmental movement. Making a Green Machine examines the development of the Scandinavian beverage container deposit-refund system, which has the highest return rates in the world, from 1970 to present. Finn Arne Jørgensen investigates the challenges the system faced when exported internationally and explores the critical role of technological infrastructures and consumer convenience in modern recycling. His comparative framework charts the complex network of business and political actors involved in the development of the reverse vending machine (RVM) and bottle deposit legislation to better understand the different historical trajectories empty beverage containers have taken across markets, including the U.S. The RVM has served as more than a hole in the wall--it began simply as a tool for grocers who had to handle empty refillable glass bottles, but has become a green machine to redeem the empty beverage container, helping both business and consumers participate in environmental actions.

Excerpt

In Norway, recycling bottles and cans is an activity we more or less take for granted, and the machines we use for returning them tend to blend into the general shopping experience—except when they malfunction. This pervasive anonymity is what originally inspired me to study the history of reverse vending machines (RVMs). In attempting to discover how we got to this point, I found that RVMs were far from simple technologies placed in grocery stores. They are the front ends of large technical systems that harness billions of consumer environmentalist actions. At the same time, the RVMs and the systems are key components in fierce conflicts over beverage market shares. This intersection between business interests, everyday environmentalism, and technological development gives us a vital insight into the making of modern environmental policies.

This study focuses primarily on the history of the Norwegian company Tomra Systems, established in 1972, which produces most of the reverse vending machines on the world market today. While older machines for bottle returns existed, Tomra was the first company to use high-tech solutions, such as optical recognition, microprocessors, and laser technology, to solve the problem of beverage container returns. Although Tomra’s founders developed their first machine for the Norwegian market, Tomra is now the world’s leading producer of these machines, with 80–90 percent of the world market. Because of this dominant market position, a study focused on Tomra can reveal broad international trends in the development of systems for recycling our bottles and cans.

I have based this history on a wide range of sources, including Norwegian and international newspaper and trade journal articles; corporate annual reports and advertising material; a few internal documents; and a substantial amount of oral interviews with the Planke brothers, as well as former Tomra CEOs, scientists, and board members. I have also interviewed grocers who installed the Tomra machine in the 1970s and have consulted the literature . . .

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