- Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling by Finn Arne Jørgensen
Finn Arne Jørgensen has produced an absorbing and entertaining study of one specific aspect of re-use and recycling in his exploration of what factors influence the fates of empty bottles and cans. Focusing on Scandinavian experiences, he describes and explains how commercial, political, and cultural attitudes toward drink containers have changed during the last four decades. He uses the intriguingly named "reverse vending machine" as a vehicle to chart broad international trends in the evolution of systems intended for recycling the prolific and ubiquitous beverage container in a variety of forms. The reverse vending machine (RVM) is a device intended to encourage consumers to return their used bottles and cans to a convenient collection point that facilitates their entry into the process of re-use or recycling, and the author describes how and why it fits into the evolution and management of what he calls "The Problem of Bottles" (p. 11).
The author does not set out to provide a global history of the replacement of the traditional re-usable and long-lived multi-trip glass bottle by disposable plastic and metal containers. Rather, he constructs a clearly focused illustrative vignette looking principally at the Norwegian experience of managing used beverage containers since the 1970s, using the RVM maker Tomra Systems as a case study around which the story of the changing commercial, political, and environmental fortunes of the drinks container is woven. Tomra is the chosen focal point not because the firm invented the RVM but because it pioneered the use of high technology in making them efficient and adaptable, to such effect that by 2010 it had become by far the world's largest supplier.
The book's story is as much about the changing cultural and commercial attitudes toward the drink container as it is about the growth of a company. It weaves into that dual thread the relationships among beverage makers, retailers, consumers, environmentalists, and politicians. Starting with Norway's virtually universal practice of re-using empty glass bottles, it describes how, during the 1970s, retailers there sought more efficient ways to cope with the problems of handling the large quantities of bottles returned to them for refunds of the deposits built into the selling price. The author takes his readers through the complexity of the evolution of producing "economic solutions to environmental problems" (p. 25), as pressures grew for a shift toward non-reusable bottles in Scandinavia, providing a useful insight into the development and adaptation of technologies needed to produce the machinery required to move toward a viable and readily accepted sociotechnical system of container return. [End Page 215]
Although substantially grounded in the Norwegian experience, the story is by no means parochial. It moves outside that country to explore the variety of experiences the firm encountered in Sweden, France, and particularly the United States. There, the author provides an illuminating comparative dimension to illustrate the differing nature of the problems Tomra encountered that led, in his words, from "high expectations to complete disaster" (p. 91). The author provides insight into the firm's difficult learning curve in the United States and its failure to anticipate business rather than technological problems. He also discusses Tomra's subsequent recovery and refocus on its Scandinavian and European dimension, particularly in the context of its strategies for identifying with, and reaching out to, the "everyday environmentalist consumers" (p. 116) on whomits business ultimately depended.
This is a blending of technological and cultural history with a leavening of business history. It delivers what the author promises in his introduction—insight into the complex relationships between the evolution of national environmental policies and the nexus of business interests, technological development, and everyday environmentalism. Finn Arne Jørgensen's Making a Green Machine is a welcome and useful addition to the growing literature on how societies conceptualize and manage consumer wastes.
Stephen Sambrook is senior research associate at...