Keeping the circular economy intact

One of the oldest examples of the circular economy is the way we recycle and reuse glass bottles. But sometimes we break the circle and create unintended consequences, as I found out on a trip to Mozambique.

Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

Recycling is core to the business models of a couple of my clients, so lately I’ve been paying more attention to the industry than I have in the past. We tend to think of recycling as a relatively recent trend and associate it with the growing environmental awareness of the past few decades. But it’s been around a lot longer than that, becoming part of mainstream consumer culture in the 1970s with the introduction of the first incentives for returning and reusing that most universal of durables: the glass bottle.

I started thinking about this on a recent trip to Mozambique’s capital Maputo, where I went to visit my uncle. He’s been living there on-and-off for close to 20 years, so speaks nostalgically now about many things that have changed since he first arrived: restaurants & bars that have closed, friends who have moved on or passed away, and old buildings that have been knocked down to make space for new ones. Something else he says has changed over the years is an increase in the variety of foreign beers available, many of which come in non-returnable bottles…

Cash for return

Beer drinking is as much a part of African culture as it is anywhere else in the world. While per capita consumption is lower than in most European countries, beer is still the go-to social drink across much of Africa. In Mozambique – as in many other parts of the continent – local beers have traditionally been sold in a standardised size of bottle known as a “media” (pronounced like the vowel sound in “head” rather than in “heed”.) People buy these medias by the bottle or by the crate, with the price including a deposit that is repaid in cash for each bottle returned. The bottles are then sent to a collection point to be sanitized, before being refilled, relabelled and resold. It’s not unlike the way the recycling of bottles works in Europe and other parts of the developed world. We may put them in a machine and receive a voucher rather than passing them to a person in a store and receiving cash, but the principle is the same. It’s a beautiful and perfect model of a circular economy. Until it gets messed up…

A traditional, returnable “media” from Mozambique.
A traditional, returnable “media” from Mozambique.

A broken circle

In the years since my uncle first arrived in Mozambique, many foreign brewers have entered the market, bringing with them a vast array of alternative-sized bottles for the consumption of beer. While locals and visitors alike no doubt appreciate having more choice in the beer they drink, the issue is that many of these bottles are not recyclable and reusable. They simply aren’t part of the circular economy of purchase, consumption, collection and redemption. The result? More bottles floating in the sea and lying on the ground – both whole and in pieces.

My uncle told me this story over a “media” at a traditional Portuguese-style café just outside Maputo. A little later we travelled further into the countryside and within minutes – as if to illustrate his point – we saw a bottle from a foreign-owned brewery lying on the ground (pictured below). My uncle says this is an all too common sight nowadays in a country where the incentive for return was once the critical link in the chain. Take away that incentive, and you disrupt a circular economy that has been working perfectly for decades.

Non-returnable bottles like this one pollute both land and water.
Non-returnable bottles like this one pollute both land and water.

Short term gains, long term losses

So what’s to be learned from this? I’m certainly not suggesting something as draconian or impractical as a return to only selling local beer in “medias.” But I am saying that foreign brewers – or any drinks manufacturer for that matter – should only sell their product in bottles that can be returned for a deposit. In places where attitudes towards and facilities for trash collection and recycling still need to be developed to the level we’ve become used to in Europe, it’s irresponsible of companies to remove that age-old incentive for recycling. We’re in an era now where we expect corporations to use their power as a force for positive change in the world, even if it costs them a little more in the short run. Supporting one of the oldest examples of the circular economy in existence would be a good place to start.