No matter what style of beer a brewery produces, or how much they
produce in a year, every brewery has to figure out how to deliver the
beer to those thirsty customers, and eager Ratebeerians. Brewpubs can
avoid the issue of packaging altogether by serving product directly
from the bright beer tank, but most breweries distribute their product
in one of three packaging formats: kegs, bottles, or cans. Less
frequently used packaging alternatives include ’growlers’ (refillable
jugs often used by brewpubs) and PET plastic bottles. Packaging
choices have a significant environmental impact, but are sometimes
based on marketing goals rather than environmental or economic
Of the three formats, draft beer requires the least packaging
materials per serving of beer. Changes to kegging processes, such as
reusing caustic cleaning solutions or installing a heat recovery
system to the keg washer can yield significant water and energy
savings. Similar efficiency improvements can also be made to the
bottling line. Properly insulated bottle washers, pasteurizers and
piping use less energy, and also reduce the use of heating and cooling
systems in the packaging area. Many people feel that pasteurization
negatively affects the flavor of the beer, and choosing not to use
heat pasteurizing also results in an energy savings on the bottling
line. Optimizing washing and rinsing cycles saves on water and
chemical use. Ensuring that conveyors do not run without load saves
electricity as well as reducing use of lubricants and wear and tear on
The one-way glass beer bottles often used in the US weigh dramatically
less than the Canadian Industry Standard Bottle. So much so that they
can seem quite fragile to consumers used to the heft of Canadian
bottles. Since bottles are typically not reused they can be less
durable and more lightweight. Similar materials reductions in aluminum
cans have yielded large energy and materials savings in the beer and
soft drinks industries.
This is typical of a North American trend towards declining total
weight of materials consumed. Researchers such as Iddo Wernick study
this phenomenon of dematerialization. In broad terms,
dematerialization refers to a reduction in the quantity of materials
required to serve economic functions. Studying dematerialization is
more complicated than energy because it cannot be reduced to a single
indicator such as kilowatt-hours or British thermal units.
A pound of aluminum cannot be compared with a pound of glass because
each material possesses unique properties defining their value and
usage, and have varying environmental and energy use consequences. All
these measures must be incorporated in a study of dematerialization.
Beverage containers provide a convenient case study of
dematerialization in practice.
Containers have generally become lighter over time. 1950s beverage
containers were predominately steel or glass, with the first steel
soft-drink can marketed in 1953. As it gained public acceptance
heavier glass containers began to lose market share. A decade later
aluminum cans debuted and grew from a 2% market share in the 1960s to
almost 97% of the American beer market in the 1980s. Already about a
third the density of steel, the aluminum can was itself lightened by
25 percent between 1973 and 1992. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
resin containers began to occupy a significant portion of the market
in the mid 1970s, especially for large containers, where heavy glass
containers had been the norm.
The declining weight of materials used can be seen as a result of
shifts to lighter materials, and technological innovations, however,
while the weight of materials used may be declining, the volume of
materials is increasing, primarily due to increased use of plastics.
Polymer plastics are "manufacturer friendly" because of their
flexibility, allowing them to be used for anything from drink
containers to car bumpers. Some believe plastics are by-products of
the car industry because the primary components for making plastic are
oil and natural gas.
The "de-carbonization" of the energy system and the accumulations of
plastics may encourage greater plastics recycling in the future, but
high levels of customization of different plastics makes separation
and reuse very difficult. An argument can be made that the lighter the
container is, the less fuel is required to transport the product, but
it generally seems to be the case that the more times materials are
re-used or recycled the better.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The Brewers of Canada estimate that almost 70% of beer sold is
packaged in returnable and reusable bottles, and return rates are high
across Canada (97% return rates in most provinces). Aluminum cans make
up approximately 19% of national beer sales, while draught beer
accounts for the remaining 11%. Cans are crushed and recycled while
kegs are reusable and have a lifespan of 15-20 years. Materials make
up a significant part of the costs, waste produced and total energy
used in packaging due to the energy used in their fabrication.
Producing aluminum from ore is extremely energy intensive (and highly
polluting), and requires many times more energy than the same amount
of aluminum from recycled material.
Refillable bottles can be reused 15-20 times resulting in large
material and energy savings. As shown in the table below, a refillable
bottle uses less than a third of the energy per use of other packaging
types. Prince Edward Island has one of the highest refilling rates in
the world, using a combination of deposits and outright bans on
one-way containers. Prince Edward Island introduced regulations
prohibiting beer sales in non-refillable containers in 1977, and has
reuse rates averaging 98% each year.
<table width="400" border=1>
<TR><td colspan=2 align=center><font size=+1>Energy Consumption per
use for 12 oz. Beverage Containers</font></td></tr>
<TR align=center><TD>Container</td><TD>Energy Use
<TR><TD>Aluminum can used once</td><TD> 7050</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Steel can used only once</td><TD> 5950</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Glass bottle used only once</td><TD> 3730</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Recycled steel can </td><TD>3880</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Recycled aluminum can</td><TD> 2550</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Recycled glass bottle </td><TD>2530</td></tr>
<TR><TD>Refillable glass bottle used 10 times </td><TD>610</td></tr>
<TR><TD colspan=2><font size=-1>Source:"Energy and Material Use."
In Saving the Planet: How To Shape An Environmentally Sustainable
Centralized distribution and bottle return sites such as government
run liquor stores and The Beer Store in Canada help facilitate high
bottle return rates. This process is aided in part by the fact that
many brewers have signed a bottling agreement under which they agree
to only use the 341 mL Industry Standard Bottle (ISB). This means that
any brewery may draw bottles from a collective pool of used bottles.
Breweries that are unable to make use of used bottles with their
equipment can sell their bottle pool allotment to those who can.
Brewer’s Retail outlets have such a high rate of packaging recovery
that the success of their programs is recognized in waste legislation.
Ontario’s Bill 90 contains a provision, exempting Brewers Retail Inc.
and brewers selling beer through The Beer Store from contributing to
blue box programs provided the criteria specified in the regulations
Reuse and recycling of other materials is also important in terms of
total energy use. All of the breweries responding to the survey
mentioned efforts to recycle cardboard, office paper, and other
recyclables. Black Oak Brewing for example receives its glass bottles
in cardboard boxes of 24, which are reused as six pack carriers for
deliveries to retail outlets. A neighboring company picks up other
types of boxes for reuse as shipping containers.
It is clear that the packaging aspects of getting beer to us have
significant ramifications for the environment, particularly on how
much energy is used, but brewers typically have a fair bit of
flexibility when making these choices. They are not afforded the same
level of discretion in managing the waste produced by the brewing
process – in order to make beer on a commercial scale you will always
need a lot of malt and a lot of water. Next week I will take a look at
ways breweries are working to minimize this waste, and make use of the
wastes that cannot be avoided.
As I mentioned last week, if you know of brewers that are going great
things for the environment drop me a Beermail and share the good news.
(Or even better send me some of their beer!)