Consumer Responses to the Problem of Disposable Containers


Raymond A. Marquardt, Anthony F. McGann, and James C. Makens (1974) ,"Consumer Responses to the Problem of Disposable Containers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 38-50.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 38-50


Raymond A. Marquardt, University of Wyoming

Anthony F. McGann, University of Wyoming

James C. Makens, University of Dallas

Americans have become increasingly conscious of environmental pollution problems during the past few years. This public concern shows no sign of abating. More important, the American public believes that private industry bears the greatest responsibility for environmental pollution problems. In a national opinion survey conducted in 1970, 72 per cent of the people indicated that private industry bears "a great deal" of responsibility, that the general public ranked second in responsibility and the government ranked third in responsibility for environmental problems (National Family Opinion, Inc., 1970). Approximately, 83 per cent of the American public also appears to prefer to solve the environment pollution problem by giving up consumption of certain products (National Family Opinion, Inc., 1970). Forty seven per cent said they were willing to pay more for certain products, but only 22 per cent said they were willing to pay higher taxes (National Family Opinion, Inc., 1970). Thus, business is likely to be faced with the burden of reducing environmental pollution because sales may be lost on polluting items and costs may increase as a result of producing and distributing more non-polluting products. Certainly, the consumer will ultimately pay for this increase in costs, but the initiative will probably have to be taken by business as less than one-half of the people support corrective action involving higher prices.

A companion problem to environmental pollution is the concern over depletion of natural resources. The American public is beginning to become aware that raw materials are a scarce resource. This change in public opinion combined with economic pressures (such as rising prices on raw materials and higher costs required to dispose of solid wastes) favor the recycling of solid waste materials. The total cost of handling solid waste in 1970 was estimated to be about $35 to $40 per ton or about $3 billion for the United States (Ness, 1970, p. 192).

Private industry is therefore being pressured by public opinion and economic factors to find ways of reducing pollution, conserving natural resources, holding the line on price, and not adding to the governmental costs of waste disposal. Recycling has been proposed as one way of partially solving these problems.

The recycling rate has varied from item to item. In 1970, 52 per cent of all lead and from 45 to 50 per cent of all of the copper consumed in the U. S. was recycled (Turning Junk . . ., 1970, p. 66). About 20 per cent of all the material required for U. S. paper and paperback products is recycled (Ness, 1970, pp. 188-89). Approximately 19 per cent of all aluminum produced in the United States comes from the recycling of scrap (Minerals Yearbook, 1969). However, three-fourths of all aluminum scrap is a by-product of industrial production so discarded consumer products account for only about five per cent of new aluminum production (Siebert, 1970, p. 6). The increased use of aluminum containers make aluminum beer and beverage cans the greatest potential source of aluminum scrap (Siebert, 1970, p. 72).

There is less recycling of the other most common container materials because of technical problems. The Glass Container Manufacturers Institute, Inc. hopes to eventually recycle 30 per cent of the nation's glass production, but present reuse is insignificant except for returnable bottles that are washed and reused in their original form (Will Industry Sell . . ., 1970, p. 47). Technical problems have also hampered the economic reuse of tin cans (Ness, 1970, p. 192) and plastics (Turning Junk . . ., 1970, p. 71). Thus, the two items that appear to represent the largest recycling potential are returnable bottles that can be cleaned and reused in their original form and aluminum cans.

To effectively accomplish recycling of these types of containers, the ultimate consumer must be motivated to start the reverse flow of the used container and the distribution channel members (retailers, wholesalers, and other middlemen) must cooperate with manufacturers who want to increase the recycling rate. The greatest barrier to container recycling is the consumer who has become accustomed to convenience throw-away packaging. "The crux of any recycling plan must be to motivate the consumer to sort and return his waste products" (Zikmund and Stanton, 1971, p. 37). It will probably be a monumental task to change the consumer attitudes and abandon his throw away habit, but it must be done in order for household solid wastes to be efficiently reused (Zikmund and Stanton, 1971, p. 37).


This article presents the findings of three studies which were conducted to determine: (1) who returns returnable glass bottles, and aluminum beer cans, (2) where the return rate is highest, and (3) why people returned returnable bottles and aluminum beer cans. The answers to these questions are needed before business or government can effectively change consumer attitudes to accomplish a higher rate of container recycling.

Research Methodology

Study One--Telephone Interview

[The data for these studies were collected by the following University of Dallas MBA students: Mr. Robert Cameron, Mr. C. H. Dunaway, Jr., Mr. Roger Guile, Mr. Gary Herrin, Mr. Willard Taylor, Mr. R. J. Wheelock, and Mr Charles Johnson.]

A random sample was drawn from the white pages of the Dallas and Fort Worth telephone directories. Since the Dallas directory contained 64 per cent of the total white pages, 64 per cent of the respondents were obtained from that directory and 36 per cent from the Fort Worth directory. The responses of 272 individuals were obtained by telephoning these people at their place of residence. The purpose of this phase was to identify those who said they returned soft drink bottles and to determine their motivation for returning or not returning bottles.

Study Two -Bottle Seeding Experiment

A deliberate bottle seeding experiment was used to determine if there is a significant difference between actual disappearance of returnable and non-returnable soft drink bottles with regard to type of location. Bottles were scattered in parks and along roadways in both urban Dallas and suburban Dallas. The greater Dallas area was divided into 104 equal size areas consisting of 4 square miles each. A sample of ten areas was then selected st random from the 104 areas. Four suburban areas and six urban areas were drawn in the sample. A list of all parks (areas designated for public recreation use by the city) and major roadways was made for each area. One park and one roadway was selected at random to be the test area in each of the ten sample areas. The seeding method consisted of marking the base of all test bottles to identify them from the other litter. The seeding was done in pairs (one returnable and one non-returnable) of bottles that were placed within 20 feet of each other. This paired approach gave equal exposure to both the returnable and non-returnable bottle. A space consisting of about 175 to 300 feet was used between each pair for a distance of about one-half mile. Seeding was alternated from side to side on roadways. A total of 24 (12 pair) bottles were seeded in each park and roadway in each of the ten sample areas. All bottles were seeded after dark to avoid being observed. Both park and roadway in each area were seeded the same night and consumer pickup results were collected after 45 hours had elapsed. City and park authorities were contacted to insure that the seeding and collection schedule would avoid the city litter pick-up.

Study Three--Personal Interview at Alcoa Redemption Centers

Personal interviews were conducted at each of the five Alcoa Dallas redemption centers. A total of 201 responses were obtained to determine who returns aluminum beer cans and what motivates them to do so.


Study One--Telephone Interview

The telephone interview survey disclosed that 96% of Dallas-Ft. Worth families consumed soft drinks. Of those consumers who purchased soft drinks in returnable bottles, 60 per cent indicated they returned all of the bottles they purchased and 40 per cent said they did not return all of the bottles they purchased. A discriminant analysis was performed on the data to determine what characteristics differentiate people who indicate that they return all of the bottles they purchase from those who indicate that they do not return all of the bottles they purchase. Fifteen demographic characteristics were investigated but only two variables were found to significantly discriminate between 100% returners and less than 100% returners.

The significant variables were sex and professional occupation. [The discriminant function on the sex and professional occupation variables gave a calculated F value of 8.06 which is significant at the alpha .01 level when F has (2,269) degrees of freedom. It correctly classified 122 of the 163 people who returned 100% of their returnable bottles they purchased.] This discriminant analysis revealed that significantly more females return all of the bottles they purchase than do males. The analysis also indicated that proportionately more non-professional people return all of the soft drink bottles they purchase. Variables that are not significantly associated with the return of soft drink bottles are: age, family size and eleven other different occupational categories (salesmen, secretary-clerk, skilled labor, government, self-employed, unskilled laborer, military, teacher-professor, housewife, student and unemployed). The finding that females have a greater propensity to return 100% of their returnable bottles than males may be due to the fact that they do the majority of the shopping for groceries and soft drinks and hence find it more convenient to return bottles on one of their frequent shopping trips. Professional people may return fewer bottles because they don't frequently visit bottle redemption stores.



Consumers who say they return all of the returnable bottles purchased were further investigated to determine what motivates them to do so. "Money" was the dominant motive reported for 93 per cent of the people who return bottles. "Money" was especially important to women in this segment. People who stated that ecology was the dominant motive were younger, regardless of sex. They were also in higher income brackets.

People who do not return all of the returnable bottles they buy were investigated to determine the probable effects of increasing the deposit rate. The surprising finding was that 53% of this segment would not return all of their bottles regardless of the deposit rate (Figure 1). The effect of the deposit rate on 45% of this segment is presented in Figure 1. Approximately 45% of those who do return all of their returnable bottles indicated they would increase the return rate if deposits were higher. All of the people influenced by the deposit rate would return all of their bottles if the deposit rate were increased to about 20 cents per bottle. Approximately three-fifths of this group would not return all of their bottles if the deposit rate were increased to about 10 cents per bottle. The 104 deposit rate is a 100% increase above the 54 rate currently being paid in the Dallas area.

Bottles are also collected from sources outside the family. Although 25 per cent of all of the respondents returned bottles that they did not purchase, behavior of students was the only major deviation from characteristics of the total sample and those who returned bottles obtained from litter. Eight per cent of the total sample were students but students accounted for 15 per cent of those who returned bottles other than household purchases. The dominant motivation for returning other people's bottles continues to be money for 81 per cent of this group. However 32% say they return for ecological reasons. This is a significant increase from the 15 per cent of the people who return their own bottles for ecological reasons.



Study Two--Bottle Seeding Experiment

The bottle seeding experiment provides additional insight into the consumer pick up patterns for non-purchased bottles. The pick-up frequency of returnable bottles is significantly greater than that of the nonreturnable bottles. Sixty per cent of all of the returnable bottles and 45% of all non-returnable bottles seeded were picked up within 45 hours of scattering. The difference between these two percentage figures is statistically significant at the alpha .05 level.

Location influences the pick-up rate for non-returnable bottles but not for returnable bottles. Sixty per cent of the returnable bottles were picked up within 45 hours of seeding in both parks and roadways (Table 2). However, 56 per cent of the non-returnable bottles disappeared from parks within 45 hours. Only 35 per cent were picked up along roadways during the same period of time. Apparently, the people picking up returnable bottles in a park also pick up non-returnable bottles in an effort to control litter. Roadway bottle collectors may be less influenced by the ecology motive because of the relatively greater inconvenience associated with carrying many bottles along a roadside. Consequently they select mostly returnable bottles to carry and handle. A monetary incentive or more convenient trash containers may stimulate this group to pick up both types of bottles. The pick-up rate of 56 per cent of the non-returnable bottles in parks is remarkably close to the 60 per cent pick-up rate for returnable bottles. Thus, in parks, the pick-up rate on non-returnable bottles is not likely to increase unless some way is found to further motivate people to collect returnable bottles.



Study Three--Aluminum Can Redemption Center Study

The demographic characteristics of people who return aluminum cans is summarized in Table 3. About two-thirds of the people who returned aluminum cans to the five Dallas Alcoa centers were men (Table 3). The black population and other minority racial groups appeared to make a more than proportional contribution at the redemption centers. Although only about 16 per cent of the Dallas population is black, 44 per cent of the people interviewed at the redemption centers were black. Another significant aspect of the demographic backgrounds of the people who return aluminum cans is an under representation of people in the 17-25 age group. This age group represents only five per cent of the people who return aluminum cans. Despite the vocal concerns expressed about ecology by this age group, they do not appear to be active participants in the Alcoa "Yes We Can" program.



Both returnable bottles and non-returnable bottles were picked up faster in suburban locations than in urban locations (Figure 2). The monetary motive appears to be more important than the ecological motive in both areas as the return rate is about fifteen per cent higher for returnables than it is for non-returnables. The relatively low return rate experienced in the urban areas represents an opportunity for increased promotion designed to stimulate more community pride and a greater awareness of the monetary incentive.



There appears to be a repetitive return behavior exhibited among the people who come to the Alcoa centers as 72 per cent of them have been there before. Most of these people return cans once a month. This emphasizes the belief that a return oriented habit can be developed. This "habit" of collecting cans was a family activity for about three-fifths of the individuals appearing at the redemption center. Only three per cent of the respondents collected the cans as an external (boy scouts, church, etc.) group project.

Money was considered to be the most important reason that individuals gave for returning aluminum cans. Although the respondents agreed that the cans created a litter problem and that the people who returned the cans were doing the city a service. they rated the ecology motive behind the monetary motive as shown in Figure 3.



Conclusions and Implications

What emerges from the three studies reported here are patterns of behavior which are location-specific, container type-specific and which are limited to identifiable segments of the consuming public.

Glass bottles are returned at greater rates by females and by those in non-professional occupations. Return rates are greater in suburban areas than in urban areas, and greater for bottles with a deposit than without.

Aluminum cans are returned to redemption centers at greater rates by men than by women. Racial minorities return a disproportionately high percentage of these containers, while young adults (aged 17-25 years) are dramatically under represented in the return of these containers. For aluminum cans, "returners" have generally developed a pattern of repeat return behavior.

Because of the influences of location, container types, and consumer characteristics on the rates at which containers are returned, it would seem that programs to educate the public on the benefits to themselves (e.g., deposits and salvage fees) and to the general welfare (e.g., improved aesthetics, reuse of scarce materials) are most amenable to a segmented audience presentation. In this fashion, messages designed to reinforce present behavior could be directed to those who presently return that type of container. For example, the importance of monetary gains could be promoted to urban dwellers and the promotion of ecological reasons could be made to higher income suburbanites. Messages designed to change behavior can be addressed to persons, occupations, and residential areas where return rates for that type of container are presently low. For example, ecological and other appeals are needed to reach the segment which is not responsive to monetary deposit rates.

It also seems that the female patterns for returning bottles and male patterns for redeeming aluminum cans are such that the redemption system could be modified. Males, especially those employed in "professions," rarely visit supermarket bottle redemption sites. Females may be reluctant to visit "can" redemption sites because these locations are inconvenient. dangerous or unpleasant.

If marketers are concerned with increasing overall return rates, then modifications which make it more socially comfortable for women to return cans (e.g., a redemption container in grocery stores) and similar modifications consistent with males' travel patterns might increase both the numbers of containers returned and the number of consumers engaging in "return" behavior.

In addition to more convenient locations, can redemption centers need to reevaluate their policy of being open only on Saturday morning. This short business period can reduce the attractiveness of returning cans for people who resent standing in line or who find these 3 or 4 hours conflicting with their normal schedule. There are segments of the population that are receptive to collecting and returning used beverage containers. An obvious marketing strategy would be to further stimulate these groups and encourage others to return their containers by providing convenient and attractive redemption centers whose business hours are consistent with consumer desires.

The monetary incentive appears to be an important consideration for returners of both bottles and cans. The deposit rate can be increased to generate additional returns. However, there is a limit to its expanded use as a vehicle to stimulate additional redemptions. First, the consumers themselves indicate that continued increases in the redemption rate will not influence them to return containers. For example, 53 per cent of the people who did not currently return all of their returnable soft drink bottles indicated that they would not return all of their bottles regardless of the deposit rate. Second, a considerable increase in the redemption price could encourage the production of counterfeit containers which could be profitably sold for the higher redemption price. For example, the current redemption rate of 5c per soft drink bottle matches the estimated cost of producing a non-returnable bottle (Alexander, 1972, p. 105). The estimated cost of producing a returnable bottle is 104 each so counterfeit bottles could be profitably produced and sold if the redemption rate exceeded 10c. Third, a high deposit rate which is necessarily associated with a high return price may reduce consumer purchases of beverages by economically conscious individuals. The last two actions would be damaging to beverage companies.

It therefore appears that beverage companies should take every effort to increase the redemption rates by providing more consumer convenience in terms of location, hours of business, service, promotional contests, etc. Efforts in this direction are worthy of the energy and talents of the marketing profession. In the long run, the only alternative may be stringent regulation.


Alexander, T. The packaging problem is a can of worms. Fortune, 1972, 85, 6, 105-107+.

National Family Opinion, Inc. Ecology and environmental survey. Toledo, Ohio: 1970.

Ness, H. The effects of recycling of solid wastes on future raw material demands. Urban demands on natural resources. Denver: University of Denver 1970.

Siebert, D. L. Impact of technology on the commercial secondary aluminum industry. Washington D.C., United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, 1970.

Turning junk and trash into a resource. Business Week, 1970, 2145, 66-7+.

U. S. Bureau of Mines. Minerals Yearbook, 1969, Vol. I-II, Metals, Minerals and Fuels. Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1969.

Will industry sell recycling? Modern Packaging, 1970, 43, 9.

Zikmund, W. G. and W. J. Stanton. Recycling solid wastes: a channels of distribution problem. Journal of Marketing, 1971, 35, 34-39.



Raymond A. Marquardt, University of Wyoming
Anthony F. McGann, University of Wyoming
James C. Makens, University of Dallas


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01 | 1974

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


O9. The Role of Numerical Identification in Customer Reaction toward Service Failure

JIEXIAN (Chloe) HUANG, Hong Kong Polytechic University
Yuwei Jiang, Hong Kong Polytechic University

Read More


Both Good from Afar…and Far from Good? Mental Representation Changes Consumer Preference for Products from a Brand with a Reputation for Innovativeness

Jeff Larson, Brigham Young University, USA
Kelly Goldsmith, Vanderbilt University, USA
BJ Allen, University of Arkansas, USA

Read More


How the Past Shapes the Present: The Assimilation of Enjoyment to Similar Past Experiences

Anika Stuppy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Bram Van den Bergh, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.