A Green Bottle From Before Going Green Was Cool
A BIT OF HISTORY Random Objects from Annette's Collection: The Codd Bottle, A Brilliant Recyclable Green(ish) Glass Bottle from Long Before Anyone Heard of Recycling
2789 words in this post. 10 min read.
The Green, Green Glass of Home
Green glass? I’m writing about green glass, and especially after writing about green grass in my last post?
Off with your head, Laing! You yell. Shouldn’t you be writing something totally different this go around, like how medieval space aliens built Windsor Castle?
What can I say? My historian mind works in mysterious ways.
One thing you may already know about today’s subject: I’m an utter magpie, and I love to collect, just like my friend, Marvelous Artist Professor Emerita (MAPE). Mape has collected an astonishing range of random stuff, which she shows off exclusively to her friends in a hidden corner on Instagram. Indeed, Mape inspired A Bit of History, the section of Non-Boring History in which this post appears.
I decided to take inspiration from Mape, because I can. Don’t tell that annoying Marie Kondo lady on the TV (is she even still on the TV?), but my house is happily cluttered with random historical
crap artifacts. This includes glass, and I’m not talking the antique collectible kind they sell at Sothebys. I like the stuff that someone chucked away 150 years ago as rubbish, and is now very cool and artsy.
Take for example, my lovely pebbles of sea glass. Sea glass was once, say, in a random example I’m making up, a Coke bottle cast into the Atlantic in 1920, smashed into fragments by the tides, each piece then worn smooth by the waves into something quite lovely, and returned to land for art projects: Natural recycling, if you like.
I hunted sea glass on beaches in Maine and the Isle of Skye in that glorious spring and summer of 2019 (or was it 1819? I forget dates these days). Searching for sea glass is a fun way to putter about brainlessly on beaches that are wonderfully empty of other people because everyone else has more sense than to wander on the beach when it's bloody freezing. Well, I like it. So there.
When we got back from our travels, I popped my little glassy gems into antique jars, the green sea glass being my favorite, along with rocks and seashells. Voila! Recycled art, or, to give it its new name, upcycled art. I may be a serious historian, but I have my Martha Stewart moments. Okay, not often, but hey:
But before half my audience rolls their eyes and logs out, this is not why we’re here, not even today. We’re here for the wonderfully-named Codd bottle, the lovely greeny glass itemry at the top of the page, and a tiny bit of recycling history.
First, let’s do something a little different from what I normally do, and give the Codd bottle some present-day context, shall we?
It’s Not Easy Being Green
(with apologies to Kermit the Frog)
Our 21st century march into a wonderful, bright Green future has hit a lot of snags, as these things tend to do: Historians laugh at the best-laid plans of mice and men, sometimes while crying.
Lately, there’s been a bit of a crisis over glass recycling, with some cities announcing they won’t take glass bottles for recycling anymore.
In Europe (this possibly does not include the UK since Brexit, or did not include the UK before Brexit, depending on who you ask) 90% of glass tossed into recycling actually gets recycled. In the US, the figure is a pathetic 40%.
I read these fun data in a 2019 article in Chemical and Engineering News, which is my favorite reading when stuck on a desert island with literally nothing else to do at all.
WARNING: NOT A SCIENTIST
Annette Laing holds a PhD in early American and modern British history and is a reasonably competent historian. However, she truly sucks at math and science. Here are Dr. Laing’s sole relevant qualifications for her following discussion of what she calls “sciencey things”.
In the US, at California State University Sacramento:
Idiot Math for Losers, 1988 (Grade: C),
Geology 1A, aka Rocks for Jocks, 1987 (Raw Grade: D, curved to an A, for reasons that escape her, and may have to do with the adjunct professor afraid to lose his job by failing everyone.)
In the UK:
Biology “O” Level, Grade C
Mathematics CSE, Grade 4
Americans: So you know? This is really, really bad.
Brits: You may laugh, or as Joyce Harper, my old English teacher, put it, years later, you may ask in disbelief: “Was that the best you could do?” Yes. It was, actually.
There are reasons, Chemical and Engineering News tells me, why the US trails Europe so badly in recycling, and glass recycling in particular.
Government policy on recycling is made at the state and local levels (NOT nationally) in the US.
Let me explain. In hippy-dippy Berkeley, California, or Wokey Madison, Wisconsin, the only exceptions to statewide bans on the death penalty are for those who don’t sort their recyclables.
In, say, Cheeseville, WI (Motto: We’re Nice! Can We Make You a Bundt Cake?) or ShootEmUp, Somewhere in the Desert, California (Pop:
2 1), folks may or may not care about recycling, at least not as much as Berkeley and Madison do, but the same statewide rules (RECYCLE IT ALL) apply to them, too.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, things are different. Local rules prevail. . Oh, there’s recyclin’, yes, ma’am, because recyclin’s big bidness. There’s lots of money to be had from that trash, so we love our recyclin’.
However . . . If you live in metro (Greater) Atlanta, you better know which county you’re in, because local government in Atlanta (which is much more than the Official City of Atlanta) is a patchwork.
In liberal DeKalb County, right next to Official Atlanta, we bring you a wheelie bin, honey, and you just go right ahead and put everything recyclable right in there, sugar, except for your glass. Now, you just take the glass over to nice Mr. Vincent at the recycling center. You know Mr. Vincent, don’t you, baby? Why, sure you do. Hmm hmm. He’s the deacon at Aunt Vernada’s church, you know the one, and he used to keep that funeral home over on East Lake . . .
If you live in conservative Cobb County, however, which is also part of metro Atlanta, then recycling is grudgingly available to those librul individdles who insist on it. Here’s how it works. (cough)
ATTENTION SNOWFLAKES: Drive your recyclables (NOT glass) to a fire station (I’m not making this up—A). Now, drop it off without getting run over by the fire truck, which is driven by men with real jobs. And then get outta here, y’all hear?
You get the idea now, and this maybe explains why so confused Americans don’t want to think about recycling at all. Which brings us to reason 2 for why so little glass is recycled in the States.
“Consumer education” is lacking. In short, this means a lot of Americans don’t see the point of this recycling thing. But the biggest problem for glass recycling in the states?
Single-stream recycling is probably the number one reason that grass recycling is so low in the States.
Single-stream recycling is the most common kind in the US. In Europe, even in the UK, people sort their recycling into different bins. In the UK, my family and friends have a dozen bins on the kitchen floor for glass, plastic, teabags, chocolate wrappers, and broken Royal event mugs.
Here in the States, we have single-stream. That means, we just bung anything recyclable, or everything we hope’s recyclable, into a recycling wheelie bin, filling it with one big higgledy-piggledy mess of incompetently washed milk jugs, pizza boxes with stuck-on cheese and stray bits of pepperoni attached, and dreggy beer cans. It’s all supposed to be clean, but a lot of us are a bit slobby about it. If we were in continental Europe, and we were this lazy, we would find Greta Thunberg coming round in person to tell us off, and quite right, too. Glass doesn’t do well in this arrangement, and it becomes so expensive, recyclers don’t want to bother with it.
But Americans are losing out by not recycling glass, and I’m not just talking about finding bottles in lakes and rivers. Businesses, too are losing out. That’s because cullet, the name, I learn from Chemical and Engineering News, for ground up recycled glass, gosh, I feel clever now, cullet, I say, is of better quality than glass made from scratch.
Cullet has less carbon dioxide gas in it, so fewer pesky bubbles. Cullet also cuts costs for companies when they use it in making new glass: Less raw material is needed when recycled glass is used, and less fuel is used, too, in part because cullet melts at a lower temperature than making glass, I guess, and no, I won’t explain any more sciencey things to you, because . . .
Dammit, Jim, I’m a Doctor (of philosophy), Not a Scientist.
There’s more. If you’re interested, go read what my dear friends at Chemical and Engineering News have to say. I’m done. I just exhausted myself with science. I have to go lie down with a novel now.
Okay, I’m back. Let’s talk about the olden days, instead. That’s more my line.
Returning the Empties
Back in Ye Olden Days, when I was but a young lass growing up in England in the 70s, one of my most desired jobs was returning the Empties to the Off-License (“Offy”). That’s Britain’s colorful name for a liquor store, but surely no more strange than calling a booze shop a package store, as they do in the South.
Beer bottles, whisky bottles, and bottles from R. White’s Lemonade (not actually lemonade, more like Sprite) , all went clanking into a bag or deep wicker basket to be schlepped, still clanking, to the “offy”, so I could collect the deposit on each bottle. Since we lived about 100 yards from our offy down the street, and liked having cash, I certainly didn’t mind volunteering.
I have since seen this deposit-based recycling of drinks containers done in the States, like in California in the 80s, although, there, it soon became a side hustle for homeless people, who rescued cans and bottles from public trash bins. The deposits were too small to make it worthwhile for anyone else to drive to the liquor store, or wherever.
There’s one big difference between the Olden Days and more recent recycling. So far as I know, even in the 1970s, the British bottles back in the Olden Days weren’t crushed up. They were reused. That certainly included milk bottles delivered to our doorstep and, once drunk and washed, collected again. And the lemonade bottles we returned, which always showed signs of wear.
This where the Codd Bottle comes in!
All Hail The Codd of Soda Bottles
Codd bottles were invented by, no kidding, a Mr. Codd.
Hiram Codd, an engineer from Suffolk, England, wanted to come up with an alternative to corks for the sodas (fizzy drinks) that were becoming more and more popular in the 19th century.
In the 19th century, sodas (UK fizzy drinks) began to become the cheap, tasty, empty calories that helped keep people refreshed while they hacked at coal down mines, or risked life and limb operating looms in textile mills, or other similar jobs.
Fizzy soft drinks were popular with a lot of not-poor people, too: Schweppes, supplying ginger beer, soda water, and not-really-lemonade plus very bad food, was the official caterer (concessionaire in US) of the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. By the way, you may have noticed I keep mentioning the Great Exhibition ,because it’s one of my most favorite things, ever. I even wrote about it in one of my novels, okay?
Codd bottles were used well into the 20th century. Let’s talk about mine.
A Codd bottle contains a glass marble and a rubber ring. The genius of this: Pressure from carbon dioxide gas in the drink forces the marble, followed by the lighter rubber ring, to the top of the bottle. There, they seal it, and prevent your drink from going flat. Your drink stays nice and bubbly for up to a hundred years, supposedly, or so I am told on the Interwebs. Sorry, this is science, and the best I can do.
Here’s me demonstrating with my (obvs) empty bottle. I’ve flipped the photo upside down because, also obvs to SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS LIKE ME, if you opened a full bottle pointing downward, the soda would land on your shoes and make them all sticky. Duh.
The Long and Yet Short Useful Life of My Codd Bottle
My Codd bottle is very heavy. That green glass, as you can see, was very thick, and I imagine it was washed, sterilized, and reused—not broken and “recycled” like today—a fair few times.
But there was a design flaw for this reusable bottle: Mr. Codd didn’t take into account the fascination that marbles hold for kids. Kids routinely smashed the bottles to get at the marbles. So my Codd bottle, in some ways, has had a long life.
But given the life I bought it for, my Codd bottle had an early retirement.
Here I am in costume, before the pandemic, performing my Could You Be A WWII Kid? program for students in Nashville, Tennessee. Notice the table to the right.
That’s where I put the props I show off to kids, like the Air Raid Warden’s helmet, and the replica sweater vest, and the bar of ghastly WWII soap. For a long time, I brought my Codd bottle as understudy prop, in case I needed to find something else to show and tell.
I almost never used it.
Finally, after several years, I got tired of carrying it around, and took it out of the props box. By then, I had bought three more Codd bottles, very cheaply, from an antiques shop that was closing down in Kent, England, in case this bottle got broken.
Do my Codd bottles bring me joy, Marie Kondo might ask? I clutch them to my bosom, and stagger back in horror. “Yes,” I say, “Now bugger off and leave me alone.”
Details from my Codd Bottle
Don’t know how old it is. Don’t know much about it. On it are the words: Robinson Brewery, Ulverston.
Ulverston is the easy part: It’s a town in the north of England, in the Lake District, perhaps best known as the home of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who became famous as Stan Laurel, the comic half of that popular duo, Laurel and Hardy. Sometimes, driving around to present in schools in Georgia and South Carolina, my Codd bottle and I have passed Harlem, Georgia, home of Oliver Hardy, which always seems appropriate.
Often, sodas in England, were made by beer breweries. That’s actually true of Sprecher’s in Milwaukee, which makes fine beers, lovely cream soda, my favorite, Puma Cola and more. No, I am NOT being paid for that shout-out.
I haven’t come across a brewery in Ulverston called Robinson Brothers, but there was one owned by R.T. Robinson, and that’s about as much as local experts on brewing history (for they exist) know about it.
If anyone has more info, I am listening.
Codd Bottles Today
Ramune, Japan’s national soda, comes in many fascinating flavors, ranging from raspberry to red chile, and it has been sold in Codd bottles since the company opened for business in 1884. Original Ramune was invented in Japan, but by a Scottish pharmacist, because we Scots get everywhere.
Ramune is now one of the few companies left in the world that still sells soda in Codd bottles. Yes, they’re recyclable.
But no, the modern version of Ramune Codd bottles are not reusable. And I doubt too many kids now smash them to retrieve the marble.
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