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Science Center Cafe Finally Agrees to Return Reusable Bottles

Bottling plant nudges Science Center cafe to return bottles

by Daniel D’Ambrosio

July 08, 2010

Bill Potvin plucks a root beer from the bottling line at the Hosmer Mountain plant in Columbia, Conn. and cradles it in his hands.

“We just came out with this special line of our old-fashioned soda with an outstanding label that came out of our files because we’re almost 100 years old,” he shouts over the din of freshly filled amber bottles marching by on a metal track.

Hosmer was founded in Willimantic in 1912. Potvin’s father bought the company in the mid-1950s and Bill and his three brothers grew up bottling pop. Today they run the company, with Bill working as the “flavorist” and sales manager. He has just brewed up a batch of root beer syrup sweetened with cane sugar in a large stainless-steel vat.

“I tweak and mess around with flavors to make them better,” says Potvin. “My goal is to make every flavor as good or better than anything in the U.S.”

That tweaking recently won Hosmer Mountain Root Beer fourth place in a national competition. But as particular as he is about soda flavors, Potvin is even more fanatical about Hosmer’s long-standing policy of reusing its soda bottles to cut costs and conserve energy. That led over the past year to a flap with the Science Center café.

Hosmer’s records show that from June 11, 2009, through April 29, 2010, the company delivered 337 cases of soda to the café, which works out to about 7,500 bottles, and received none in return.

Restaurant Associates of Hartford manages the café for the Science Center, which opened in downtown Hartford last June with decidedly green credentials and a mission to inspire schoolchildren to embrace science. Spokesman Aaron Wartner points out that 95 percent of the steel in the LEED Gold building came from recycled cars. But Potvin says returning Hosmer’s bottles for reuse simply did not fit the cafe’s business model and no matter how much he argued with manager Roger Cote he could not convince him to change his ways. Appeals to Cote’s boss, Bill Unterstein, fell on equally deaf ears, according to Potvin.

“If I had seen even a 10 percent bottle return I probably would have accepted it, but when I saw zero I knew [Restaurant Associates] was essentially saying ‘F you’ and that’s ridiculous,” says Potvin.

As Hosmer’s drivers make their rounds — and that often includes Potvin himself — they also pick up cases filled with empty bottles from the last deliveries. Some customers, like the Marlborough Tavern, regularly return more than 90 percent of their bottles. The average return rate is considerably less than that — around 50 percent — but still Hosmer sterilizes some 800,000 bottles yearly in an industrial washer utilizing 160-degree water combined with lye.

“The returnable bottle is a system the industry used for 75 years but it’s defunct now because it doesn’t fit the corporate model,” says Potvin. “The corporations sold a throwaway model to the country back in the 1950s. When you think of how many landfills are full of Tab and Coke and Pepsi bottles it’s scary.”

Fifty years later, the nation is much more environmentally aware, but Potvin says many people don’t realize that reusing bottles is even better than recycling them because the temperatures required to melt recycled bottles into glass for new bottles are in the range of 900 to 1,000 degrees, compared to the 160 degrees required for sterilizing.

“Environmentally the amount of energy saved by sterilizing instead of melting bottles down again is ridiculous,” says Potvin.

The state Department of Environmental Protection agrees. The agency has put reuse near the top of its hierarchy of environmentally sound practices.

“While we’re supportive of recycling, reuse is better,” says Diane Duva, DEP’s assistant director, waste engineering and enforcement division. “It’s more energy-efficient and less resource-intensive to reuse over recycling.”

Which is why Potvin was so baffled last June when he didn’t get any bottles back from the Science Center café. After all, wasn’t it part of the Center’s mission to teach children about climate change and energy conservation?

Potvin contacted the Science Center’s finance manager, Deborah Swanson; president and CEO, Matt Fleury; vice-president, operations, Cherie Sweeney; and chief financial officer, Lisa Mottola, to make his case.

“For all of our beverages (including those sold at the Science Center Deli) we use a returnable glass bottle, which is sanitized and reused many times,” wrote Potvin. “We charge a substantial deposit on our bottles to encourage bottle returns. Thus far the Science Center has returned virtually no bottles. We pick up empty crates each time. This represents a costly practice to your business as well as to the environment.”

He didn’t hear back, and says at the end of April he was “cut loose” by Restaurant Associates, with orders, which had been placed weekly since June 2009, abruptly ending.

Then in May, Potvin ran into his long-time customer, Diane Duva, at one of Hosmer’s retail outlets, and told her his story. Duva asked Judy Belaval of DEP’s Materials Management program to contact the Science Center.

On May 24, Belaval e-mailed Ed Lane, the Science Center’s director of facilities, concerning the environmental benefits of reuse. She noted that Science Center café manager Roger Cote had cited “several reasons” for not being able to collect beverage bottles for reuse, including labor practices, space concerns and not being able to rinse out bottles.

But Belaval pointed out the Hosmer program for returning bottles does not require rinsing, nor a lot of space and “seems to be working in other venues.” She concluded by thanking Lane for “listening,” adding, “Hopefully the Science Center will walk the talk.” On June 24, two months after Potvin claims he was “cut loose,” and a month after Belaval’s e-mail, the Science Center café placed an order for seven cases of Hosmer soda.

Wartner denies, however, that Hosmer was ever cut loose, and says the café simply had a sufficient supply of the soda for those two months. He says Science Center management only became aware of the issue between Restaurant Associates and Hosmer in late May when contacted by the DEP, and asked its vendor to work something out with Potvin, which it did, even though Potvin was unwilling to pick up the bottles weekly.

“At this very small scale, a little more than a dozen bottles a day, it’s more about principle than measurable impact,” Wartner says. “That’s why we asked the parties to work something out regarding re-use. Hosmer initially refused to share in the cost of a re-use program. The parties eventually found a way to make it work and we’re happy about that.”

Last Thursday, says Wartner, the café sold 15 bottles of Hosmer and nine were put back in the crate, ready for the driver from Hosmer to pick them up on the next delivery.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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