PEI Bans the Can
IN THE EARLY 1970s, Islanders had the option of purchasing beer and pop in cans. Cans were marketed as part of the new lifestyle which was based on mobility and convenience. However, a one mile litter survey conducted between Charlottetown and Cornwall exposed the ugly side of this new lifestyle. Some 485 cans were found strewn in the ditches along this portion of the TransCanada Highway. There were also 27 returnable bottles and 202 non-returnable bottles. It was clear something had to be done to curb the littering problem. It was estimated that between 1966 and 1973 the number of beverages sold to Islanders in non-refillable bottles or cans had jumped by 40%. There was no incentive or opportunity for people to dispose of these containers responsibly, so road and beach pollution was the result.
Following British Columbia's lead in 1970 to legislate deposit-refunds as a litter deterent, the Island government decided to ban the sale of canned beer on July 1, 1973. At their meeting in St. Andrew's, New Brunswick in 1975, all three environment ministers from the Maritime provinces agreed to demand the soft drink companies standardize the size of their bottles at the same time they would be converting to Metric sizes. Letters to this effect were sent to the three main bottlers then in business on PEI: Seaman's Beverages, Peerless Beverages, and Maritime Beverages.
By 1977, non-refillable soft drink bottles which held a 26% share of the Island market were banned. An industry survey revealed that a year later, 8% of former non-refillable drinkers chose cans, while 18% chose refillable bottles. In 1978, the can manufacturing industry found itself in an environmental dilemma over the use of pull-tabs. They redesigned the can tabs which were targeted as a hazard to fish and other wildlife. In 1979, the federal government outlawed an early version of the 1.5 L glass bottle which had a reputation of falling over and exploding. Two litre plastic containers replaced them. At that time, PEI allowed the new plastishield containers with a deposit-return applied to them. Public opinion, however, was not in favour of this and in 1981 a public meeting at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown was held to discuss the issue. No one gave a supportive voice to non-refillable containers and many, including a local member of the Consumers Association of Canada, were specifically critical of moving toward the new plastic bottle. The fact that plastic is a petroleum product and could create toxic gases if burned was of particular concern, as was the issue of the plastic bottles ending up as beach litter.
In the early 1980s, cans accounted for 25% of all beverages sold on PEI. Consumers had a choice and were overwhelmingly choosing refillable bottles. There were no canned soft drink factories on the Island and it was noted there was discernable dumping of cans at low prices during the summer months in Island supermarkets, with the resulting garbage left for Islanders to clean up. Farmers also complained that cans damaged agricultural implements. These were the main reasons why pop cans were banned from PEI in 1984. Preserving a local bottling business and the associated jobs was also seen as paramount. Another positive incentive was proximity to glass recycling in Moncton and the lack of aluminum recycling facilities.
Today, the return rate on PEI's soft drink and beer containers stands at close to 98%. This is the highest in North America and has not been seen elsewhere since the 1950s when local bottlers and deposit-return systems were the norm. In retrospect, cans appear cheaper for consumers to buy than glass bottles. Bottles have traditionally placed the environmental responsibility squarely on the producer and consumer. Disposal and recycling of cans in a municipal collection system have tended to be borne by the public purse. Cans, as a consequence, have been cheaper for large soft drink companies to mass produce and distribute because they do not have to include collection/disposal costs. Historically, though, they have not been the overwhelming choice of Islanders or our neighbouring provinces where even today, cans account for less than 30% of the market.