The beer packaging debate
One of the great difficulties in attempting to be environmentally conscious is the sheer amount of thought that goes into the process. Just take, for example, the question of whether to use paper or plastic bags at the grocery store. While it’s likely that you have received several reusable shopping bags by now and are probably using them like a responsible citizen when you remember to dig them out of the c toms abinet under the sink, you’re probably still paying the five cent surcharge for a plastic bag (where applicable) more often than not.
It makes little difference to the groceries being carried what kind of bag you choose. The packaging doesn’t change the quality of the contents. But in the case of packaging beer, the environmental implications are complicated by the fact that the packaging does have an effect on the perceived quality of the product.
In Canada, we’re lucky enough to have a closed loop deposit system, ensuring that an overwhelming 97% of beer bottles are returned by consumers. According to the Brewers Association of Canada, the Industry Standard Bottle (ISB) can be used up to fifteen times prior to recycling. Not only is that environmentally fr toms iendly, but if you return enough bottles at once, you’ll probably be able to get more beer.
In terms of perceived quality, the ISB does have the downside of making it difficult to stand out from a marketing perspective. With craft beer, more releases are in larger, unique single bottles that may not fit into the closed loop system. While it’s probable that they’ll be recycled, it’s less likely that they’ll be returned, making them more or less single use vessels.
Speaking of single use vessels, aluminum cans make up about 27% of packaged Canadian brewed beer sales. Aluminum is more costly to produce initially, but the energy savings in recycling it are substantial, coming out to five percent of the initial cost. And it can be recycled indefinitely.
Of course, some people report that beer packaged in cans has a metallic taste despite the layer of epoxy toms resin on the inside of the can. For the most part, this can be combated by pouring the beer into a glass before drinking it. Similarly, it is common etiquette to avoid crushing the cans on your forehead after emptying them unless you’re at a toga party.
This doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s still a significant amount of packaging and shipping to be taken into consideration. While it’s true that glass bottles might weigh more than aluminum cans, it can be easily argued that the freight involved in shipping either is best avoided.
As with shopping bags, the answer is a re usable third option. A large number of brewpubs offer a two litre “growler” that can be refilled on their premises, cutting out a large amount of the freight used in recycling bottles or cans. Not only will you be helping the environment by using a growler, you’ll be supporting a local business. In a major city, you may even have a brewpub within walking distance, negating any vehicle emission.
I know not everyone is sold on the concept of making consumer choices for environmental reasons, but in this case there’s an additional benefit. The beer toms is fresh from the brewery and therefore has the quality intended by the brewmaster. You’re getting your beer at its peak.