For this month’s Session, Nathan Pierce at Micro Brewr asks us to give our preferences on either Bottles or Cans from our particular point of view. As far as I’m concerned, plenty of beers come and go, but we’ve just got one planet. So the question for me boils down to whether bottles or cans are better for the environment?
Like with many questions, the answer turns out to be complicated. Many breweries trumpet their beers packaged in cans as better for the environment than bottles. However, this is based on the simplistic argument that since cans are lighter, they require less energy to transport. While true, this overlooks the fact that it takes about twice as much energy to manufacture a can as it does a bottle. In addition, the bauxite mining required to produce aluminum involves a number of toxic chemicals while glass manufacturing is comparatively cleaner. The environmental scales tip back towards aluminum due to the fact that the average aluminum can contains roughly 40% recycled content while for bottles, it’s between 20-30%.
So which is better for the environment? No one really knows. New Belgium Brewery devotes considerable efforts towards environmental sustainability in their business, and they declare no winner in this debate. An interesting article I found online quoting David Allaway, a solid waste policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, doubts the energy savings of transporting cans offset the additional energy required to produce them. In the article, Allaway asserts “The environmental impact is dominated by what it takes to make it in the first place. When you recycle the aluminum you significantly reduce the impact of making it. But that doesn’t mean the aluminum can you’re buying is made from 100 percent recycled aluminum. Most of the damage is done once you buy a product. To really understand the environmental impacts you have to look upstream. Only then can you have a decent understanding of what’s the better choice.”
Cans or bottles? My choice is neither. Kegs are more environmentally sustainable than either of them, especially since they are used multiple times. Growlers are also a better choice environmentally since they are also reusable. Single use packaging of bottles or cans is actually recent historical phenomenon. Before World War II, nearly all beer and soft drinks were sold in refillable bottles. Today, that number is only 6%, which the state of Massachusetts leading the United States with a rate of 16%. It is my hope in the not too distant future, beer will be consumed from refillable containers, which are far more environmentally sustainable than the current single use packaging. Most likely in the future, people will look back on our current cans and bottles as a quaint relics of our unsustainable times.