Today in Tedium: In the summer of 1979, Canadian grocery stores had a problem. It was a product design problem, and it was one that involved a specific size of soda bottle. As soda became an increasingly popular drink, consumers demanded more sizes so that they could drink more and save some of it for later. These days, we think nothing of this shift, beyond the obvious environmental and health implications of drinking so much soda. But the conversation was different in the late 1970s, especially in Canada, where the soda bottles had one significant difference from the modern ones that mattered quite a lot—they were made of glass, and as it turns out, large glass bottles and soda don’t mix. Today’s Tedium talks about the year Canada recalled pop. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is from a CBC report that eventually led to a recall that cost the soda industry millions to comply with.
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The size, in liters, of a large pop bottle in Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This roughly-50-ounce size, slightly smaller that the common 2-liter in the American market, was still quite large to what was previously available and became a big success in the country when introduced to the market in the mid-1970s. The bottle was described as “spectacularly successful” when it was first released, according to the Canadian Soft Drink Association’s then-president, Peter Kains, who called the bottles were “designed for a heavy soft drink usage pattern.”
Why Canada’s glass-bottle problem exploded
I once worked in a grocery store, and let me tell you, the greatest hazard that we commonly ran into, worse than anything else, involved the spaghetti jars. The reason for this was because they were made of glass and stacked on shelves, and when they fell—plop—they became a gnarly mess of processed tomato sauce and rigid glass.
It was hard to clean and it was a natural risk that items would shift on the shelves and fall on their own. But the thickness of the sauce meant that it was mostly contained, making it (relatively) easy to mop.
This is the danger of glass, which is significantly more recyclable than plastic but also significantly more dangerous. We arguably use it more now in consumer devices than we did, say, 30 years ago, in part because the glass technology continues to improve. In a world of gorilla glass, the shatter risk is always shrinking.
But there was a time that glass did shatter, a lot, and it caused problems for a lot of people. But at least, in both of these cases, the bottles did not explode, exposing anyone nearby to potential shrapnel dangers.
This was not the case in the Canadian market at the end of the 1970s, when the soft drink industry suddenly had a big problem on its hands. That problem? Large glass bottles of pop.
It’s not exactly surprising, if you think about it—these bottles were holding pressurized soda that was only being held in by a lid. While glass was obviously quite resistant, the more inexpensive stuff often used in returnable pop bottles did not fit that category.
And throughout 1979, the bottle hit the fan in a big way, and spread shards of glass, along with lots of soda, everywhere—endangering the public in the process.
The problem emerged in the public eye thanks to a lawsuit involving a three-year-old boy who had been seriously injured by an exploding bottle, an incident that permanently blinded him in one eye.
During the research portion of the case, the law firm representing the boy’s family reached out to David Barham, a chemical engineer and expert on glass at the University of Toronto, to see if he could do research on the problem of soda bottles and exploding glass. Moved by the incident, he agreed.
“It took a long time to get that boy out of my mind,” Barham told the University of Toronto Alumni Magazine. “Even now I could almost sit down and cry.”
Barham, purchasing dozens of these bottles for testing with his own money, broke a lot of glass in its research. He found that of the various bottles he tried from different brands, only the bottle of Coca-Cola did not explode when tipped over—a credit, perhaps, to its trademark design. The rest, most of which had a design similar to the slightly smaller 40-ounce beer bottle, had glass that shattered basically everywhere, leaving shards flying.
With his shocking findings, he reached out to both federal regulators and the Canadian Soft Drink Association, and recommended an immediate recall of the bottles. Unfortunately red tape and business pressures were tough to get past. Canada’s Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs told him it could take months—so he forced the issue by going to the press.
The result, shared with the CBC’s flagship news program The National, was both dramatic and hard to ignore. As highlighted by the CBC’s archives, even in a controlled setting the results, involving a small, non-forceful push onto a vinyl-covered concrete floor, were fairly dramatic.
(Almost as if to underline the point, Barham and reporter Joan Watson wore safety goggles.)
Essentially you had a situation where arguably the most popular beverages on the shelves, sold by companies that were extremely powerful and influential, had a tendency to injure people by simply falling over. And that meant that the soda industry and the Canadian government were going to have a mess on their hands—a mess complete with flying glass.
“The ones I’m talking about are the torpedo-shaped bottles. The one that cut me was a Pepsi bottle.”
— Canadian pop-country singer Anne Murray, explaining to the public in an interview with the Canadian Press how a Pepsi bottle shattered and lodged a shard of glass into her foot, requiring three stitches. Murray, who at the time was Canada’s biggest pop star and only about six months removed from her only chart-topping hit on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, basically had this injury happen to her in May of 1979, just over a week after the CBC report and at a time when the reports about the shattering bottles were front-page news. Murray decided to use her fame to draw attention to the risk. “It could really be a serious injury resulting from something like this and there’s no need for it,” Murray added. “If I can do something to prevent it, I will.”
The glass problem emerged partly out of a push to make bottles returnable
Now, you might be wondering from the description above: Why glass? Why did giant glass bottles win out for such a heavily consumed product in such a large size?
The problem emerged in the early 1970s when government regulators at the provincial level, concerned about the problem of recycling and waste, put in place a set of rules encouraging the use of returnable containers, rather than single-use containers made of aluminum or glass.
In the early 1970s, these bottles became a major point of frustration in part because they came to be seen as both a safety and a litter hazard, with a 1970 Canadian Press article putting the problem as such:
Municipalities want the bottles banned because they have to pay thousands of dollars every year to have them collected and disposed of.
Conservation groups say they want them banned because the public is reckless in their use. In their view a consumer buys pop, drinks it, then tosses the bottle away. The merry-go-round ends with landscapes defaced, children cutting their feet on broken glass and roads, highways and parks looking like garbage dumps.
Lacking governmental backing the two groups generally had to confine themselves to pleas to the pop-drinking public to boycott the bottle or, at the least, throw it into a garbage can after use. That, they admit, has produced few results.
According to a 1979 Edmonton Journal article published just before the controversy began, the outcry over non-returnable bottles led to a revival in interest in the returnable kind, albeit in more sizes than the small Coke bottles of yore. The effort to encourage returnable bottles created something of a de facto ban on non-returnable bottles, due to the high cost of collecting non-returnable bottles.
“We felt the government was trying to tell us how to run our own business,” said Ralph Davis, who managed the Edmonton bottling plant for Canada Dry.
If Canada Dry was worried about this then, the frustration must have surged in the months after that April 1979 story, when outcry over the bottles reached a fever pitch thanks in no small part to David Barham’s CBC appearance and injuries like those experienced by Anne Murray.
The estimated share of sales that 1.5-liter bottles had in the Canadian soft-drink market in 1979, according to a Canadian Post story. Between the glass and the soda, the bottles were estimated to have cost the soft drink industry around $50 million, most of it in the form of thrown-away reusable glass bottles. The smaller 750ml (about 25 ounces) size, described as a “workhorse” by the soft drink industry, was also said to have faced explosions as well, but at a less pronounced rate than the 1.5-liter bottles. The smaller bottles were never banned. The larger bottles, however …
The year pop bottles got recalled en masse in Canada
For 15 months in 1979 and 1980, it was difficult if not impossible to get your hands on a 1.5-liter soft drink bottle in Canada, all thanks to the risk of broken glass.
It didn’t start as an outright ban—it was actually voluntary at first—but when the efforts to discourage the sale of the bottles despite their risk didn’t seem to have an effect, the voluntary ban was turned into a mandatory one thanks in part to rising pressure from consumer watchdogs.
What caused the sudden rise in pressure to ban the bottles? Simply put, increasing reports of real-world incidents involving the bottles exploding on their own—with one particular incident, a woman at a grocery store who received cuts to her neck after the bottle exploded—helping to encourage stronger action. Dozens of incidents of this nature were reported during the period, only one of which involved Canada’s biggest pop star.
When the ban was enacted in August of 1979, one of the biggest concerns of the soda industry was that the bans would eventually come for smaller containers as well.
“I don’t know how we or bottlers anywhere in Canada can conduct our business under that kind of threat,” Coke spokesman David Steele told The Ottawa Citizen.
In the nearby United States, it should be noted, the situation was a bit different. While there was a period during the mid-1970s in which the industry offered returnable two-liter glass bottles, it was a short-lived shift. (And interestingly, it appears that the two-liter Pepsi bottle design had a large glass ring near the top, which presumably would have prevented or minimized breaking risks.)
In 1978, the soft drink industry had first introduced the two-liter plastic bottle, roughly two years after an equivalent glass bottle was produced. The reasons for moving to plastic were pretty clear—as highlighted by a Pepsi commercial in which a woman drives around with a bunch of soda bottles in her back seat. It was lighter and bouncier. It has become a mainstay of pizza night ever since.
The easy solution to this dilemma might have been to bring the two-liter plastic bottles into Canada so that they could bounce in the trunks of vehicles with no risk of shattering. But earlier attempts to regulate bottles with environmental concerns in mind made that untenable in most provinces—while Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta were able to easily transition to two-liter plastic bottles, Ontario specifically had rules banning non-refillable bottles.
Since this was not available, the industry tried devising other methods to solve this problem. The suggestion of building a plastic impact ring for the bottles was attempted, but Canadian regulators felt that this tactic did not go far enough to prevent flying glass, and instead pushed for a plastic coating.
“When such a bottle is developed by using either a plastic film coating or some other means of retention, I intend to propose that the ban be rescinded and that appropriate regulations be introduced for 1.5-liter glass bottles,” said the country’s Consumer Affairs Minister, Allan Lawrence.
The industry was able to successfully fend off bans on other types of bottles even though some, like David Barnham, warned that they were also dangerous.
But it took until the fall of 1980 for the Canadian government to allow the bottles again, but only in the case of strict standards being implemented—a lengthy pause of an important product for the industry. Ultimately the approach that won the day, a strategy supported by Barham, was putting a thin layer of plastic on the bottle to prevent glass from flying if cracked.
For his part, David Barham—the man whose testing suddenly put the soda industry on notice in a big way—felt that the efforts to ban the bottles both didn’t go far enough and exposed a degree of ugliness in the debate that he was not expecting. The interview he conducted with the University of Toronto’s alumni magazine paints a picture of a man who simply was presented with a clear problem that could endanger the public, so he tried to do the right thing and publicize the problem.
Despite being described as “witty and energetic” by the reporter, he wasn’t media savvy in the way we expect people having media presence to be. And beyond his standing out on this one issue, he appeared to have kept focused on his role at the University of Toronto through his retirement.
Could you blame him? His whistleblowing exposed a significant issue, but the soda industry has defended itself from way worse things than this over the years, which meant that by simply speaking up, Barham was a target. He was not a fan of the cavalier way the industry responded to his basic message—that glass is a dangerous receptacle for soda. As he recalled: “Glass will be glass—that’s what one soft drink executive said!”
He pointed at the Canadian Soft Drink Association’s playing down of the odds that people might get injured by a by a broken glass bottle—a rate of explosion they put at one in 8 million.
“They have 22 billion pop bottles on the shelves each year,” Barham said. “If you divide that by 8 million, you’re looking at close to ten incidents a day.”
In other words, the odds of you becoming a successful pop singer like Anne Murray are significantly lower than those of you becoming a victim of exploding soda-bottle glass like Anne Murray.
And since he blew the whistle, he got all the negative attention—and it was attention that followed him throughout the media.
(Case in point—the executive director of the Canadian Soft Drink Association attacked Barham in a letter to the editor to this magazine, stating that his “less than rational handling of the problem of soft drink glass containers has cast a shadow of doubt on the safety of all glass containers and glass vessels.” To which I say: He’s an engineer and academic—it is not his job to validate the safety of these containers. It is the soft drink industry’s.)
I find myself feeling for Barham, who simply used what little power and knowledge he had to solve a situation, only to see his name dragged through the mud.
I worry if something like this happens today, whether the whistleblower is going to even want to speak up in this way, knowing the potential reputational risk that might follow. In this age of social media, some folks may not want to take the risk.
Thanks to Paul Chato for helping confirm that yes, this was actually a big story in Canada in 1979.
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