Pop a Top Again… by
(34 Stories)

Prompted By Recycling

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…and then recycle that bottle, my friend.

Recycling is not really the best solution to resource conservation, re-using is even better.  Doing with less “stuff” is even better than re-using.

As my much younger sister pointed out years ago, recycling is not really the best solution to resource conservation, re-using is even better.  And I will add to that – doing with less “stuff” is even better than re-using.

I suspect that many people of our age were used to the idea of recycling and re-using long before those terms came into fashion.  I remember, in the early 1950s, my mother putting out bottles at the front door early in the morning.  A few hours later, she would go back to the door and find bottles of milk, occasionally chocolate milk (!), and cream, delivered straight to the front step by the Ucker Brother’s dairy.  (A few years later, I played on the Ucker Brother’s Pee-Wee League baseball team.)  The dairy would then wash the used bottles and re-use them for the next day’s deliveries.

We also saved pop bottles (or soda bottles for you East coast folks who think it’s quaint that we mid-Westerners called it “pop”).  There was a deposit of something like 3¢ on every bottle, so there was a reward for helping the companies re-use them.  Likewise with beer bottles, you would get a nice discount on a case of beer if you brought in 24 long-necks, especially if you brought them in in the cardboard case they came in.

I grew up on a farm, and we re-used lots of stuff, including glass Mason jars.  My mother and my grandmother would spend days every year putting up garden-grown vegetables in these jars, and we always had tomatoes, beans, peaches, even pickled tongue and heart, from the shelves in the basement.

We even recycled the grass and grain that our cattle ate, in the form of the manure manufactured by those animals.  Of course, that meant that my brothers and I had to spend many hours every summer, pitching the manure into a spreader so that it could be put back onto the fields, to grow more corn to be recycled  through the cattle again.

At some point, however, companies determined that it was just too difficult to manage the container re-use process, and they switched over to one-use bottles and cans.  Because the bottles were not designed to be re-used, they could be made of much thinner glass.  Beer was put into steel cans, which meant that the user had to have a punch-type can-opener, or “church-key” to get into them.  Of course, you had to punch two holes into the can, one to drink from and the other to let air in to equilibrate the pressure.

Later, the pop-top was invented – it made a larger hole, so you didn’t have to worry about the pressure equilibration.  But the pop-top wouldn’t work with steel cans – the metal was too strong, and so the cans had to be made from aluminum.  (As an aside, the invention of the pop-top didn’t do away completely with the need for the punch-type opener, particularly for guys – it’s always guys who come up with stupid stuff like this – who drank beer for its effect rather than for its taste.  They would turn the beer can upside down, punch one triangular hole in the bottom, then hold the can over their mouth and open the pop-top, which enabled them to “shoot” the beer, i.e., send it straight down their throat.  I have seen guys empty a twelve-ounce can in less than two seconds, using this technique.  Other guys would drop the original pop-tops into the can, resulting in many trips to the emergency room to remove the tops from throats.  That problem was finally resolved by the current pop-tops, which remain attached to the cans.)

The emergence of one-use bottles and cans and then plastic containers, led to several problems, including an increase in the prevalence of road-side litter as millions of people decided that it made more sense to just toss their containers out the car window than to hold them until they reached an acceptable disposal receptacle.  There was also the cost of manufacturing the containers.  Melting sand to make glass uses a lot of natural gas and turning bauxite ore into aluminum takes a huge amount of electrical energy, and plastics, for the most part, use oil.  (The plastics also end up in huge areas in the ocean, and in microplastics in our air.)  It makes sense to recycle these products, provided that you don’t spend even more energy collecting them.  So many communities instituted recycling stations and encouraged citizens to sort their waste into recyclable and non-recyclable streams.  The consumers could then deliver their recyclables to a facility, or in some cases the community would provide curbside recycling.  A great many people, however, are unwilling to even try to sort their trash – they just send everything to the landfill.

We are reaching a point, however, at which the sheer volume of recycled materials is more than companies can handle, and so we see American trash being hauled across the oceans to be dumped in third-world countries.

June and I are religious about our recycling efforts.  The volume in our recycling bin is usually about three to four times the amount in our regular trash, and I drive yard waste to a central composting facility rather than send it to a landfill.  (We use a mulching mower, so we recycle most of the grass clippings.)  But many of our neighbors just won’t get into a recycling state of mind.

Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Excellent analysis of the bottles and cans, Jeff, and I applaud you for your recycling efforts. Guess I wasn’t around young frat guys enough (I went to a women’s college), so I largely avoided that beer shooting you so aptly describe. My 93-year-old mom and the environment committee in her retirement home are exploring new ways to recycle fabrics if clothing can’t be donated. There are a few specialty places throughout the country, but this effort is in its infancy.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      Your mom’s recycling of fabrics reminded me of another type of “re-using”. My uncle owned a general store in a small town, really just a crossroads, in Washington County (Marietta) Ohio. He sold flour in what must have been fifty-pound bags there. The bags were made of flower-print cotton, so the wives could make dresses from the bags when the flour was gone.

  2. Thanx for the education Jeff, and it is quaint that you mid-Westerners call it pop!

    But seriously I share your concerns for our sorry planet as so many of our fellows don’t even bother to recycle, and how about the anti-vaxxers among us!

    And I must confess I was not so conscientious about recycling at first, but images of dead marine life with plastic-filled stomachs and emaciated polar bears on melting ice caps haunts me!

  3. Suzy says:

    Tom’s story talked about the milkman too, and many of us responded that we had the same experience. I guess it was universal for our generation. Other ways you recycled on the farm were outside my experience, so nice to learn about them. I do remember seeing guys “shoot” beer the way you describe, but certainly would never try it myself (especially since I don’t like beer). And the music video was pretty funny!

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      The beginning and end of the video are amusing, but the actual music is amazing. Alan Jackson’s voice is so smooth, and both the lead guitar and steel guitar solos exemplify musicality that is often seen in “country” music.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    I’m from the Midwest too, Jeff (Detroit). Faygo Red pop was our drink of choice. I remember coming east to college and hearing the kids talk about “soda” or even “tonic” (really antiquated) like they were from another planet. I remember the returnables back home. We now have them on soda bottles in MA too…for some years now (5 cents). As Suzy mentioned, several of us also commented on Tom’s story that we, too, remember the milkman delivering milk and other dairy products directly to our homes on a schedule, with the used (clean) bottles left out to be taken back to the factory and reused. I agree, there was much less waste in our childhood.

    I also remember guys “shooting” beers to great effect at parties. And of course, a “church key” was always a must have item.

    Now, we do what we can, but everything is shipped off-shore, so are we really being cost-effective. I echo your sentiment and worry as you do. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I totally agree with you, Jeff. Rather than recycle, reuse was the thing when I was a child. Today, everything is so wasteful. Appliances are unrepairable and thus tossed when they break. My repairman told me he’s closing up shop because not too much is fixable these days.

  6. Beautifully put together, Jeff, a great combination of fact and feeling, from the milk bottles (ours was Herpy’s Dairy) to the church key, the hydrophysics of beer cans. Remember pop-top necklaces. I also noted the care you took to describe the econo (as opposed to eco) causes of our current state of waste. And agreed, recycling isn’t the most effective of solutions to our current difficult condition, but you brought your own current hard work back in for a moving finish. Thanks!

  7. Good job, Jeff. Yes absolutely: as George Carlin wryly observed we are obsessed with our stuff. Re lawn clippings: there’s another way that I currently employ: don’t have a lawn in the first place. We let ground cover have its way. No grass to cut, no need to remove leaves. And pop tops. Always have hated them. Intensely more so after them when, barefoot, I stepped on one that someone had thrown on the ground.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      Unfortunately, our HOA would have a fit if we attempted to do without grass. We do have a “natural” area in the backyard, though.
      And our yard waste does not include grass clippings – I have always had a mulching mower. And my current mower is battery powered – no gasoline, no fumes, no tune-ups.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for the video at the end–Alan Jackson is such a pretty boy too! Your story illustrates nicely how we can live a perfectly good life without disposable everything. Of course, the new and better versions of bottles and consumer goods generate more income than the old versions, or they wouldn’t succeed in the market. “The Story of Stuff” you tube cartoon is a bit simplistic, but a nice description of our current predicament.

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