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What’s Better for the Environment, Craft Beer in Bottles or Cans?

Don was quite the tree hugger when he was a cub...

I just came across a website called Triple Pundit, a hairy-legged, tree hugging website that apparently cares as much about the environment as it does about commerce.  What do they think this is, the 21st century? 🙂

The article that caught my attention was about the environmental atrocity that is aluminum mining, and how craft beer’s recent shift to selling beer in cans may sully the industry’s otherwise sparkling reputation for being green. This is news to me, as I’ve heard lots of folks saying how much better cans are for the environment. According to the article, every step of the aluminum mining, manufacturing and raw material transportation is awful for the planet and craft brewers who use cans are promoting this destruction.

So bottles are the way to go then, right?  Not so fast, because another article on the same site makes it clear that there is no easy way to determine if cans or bottles are better for Mother Earth.  Here’s an excerpt that encapsulates the debate. I’ve kept their links active because they point to some good source material:

In evaluating the environmental impact of cans versus bottles, there are many factors to consider, including raw material sourcing, processing techniques, recycling rates, the distance of the container manufacturer to the brewery, and the distance of the brewery to the distribution point.

Most certainly, manufacturing aluminum cans is extremely resource intensive.  The mining, refining, processing and transporting of bauxite ore, from which aluminum is derived, leaves an extensive trail of carbon emissions in its wake. Contrastingly, bottles are made from the more abundant resource silica and glass processing has lower overall emissions rates.

However, the recycling rate for glass in the US is only 28% compared to the nearly 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans. Moreover, beer bottles contain only 20-30% recycled glass in comparison to the average beer can that is made of 40% recycled aluminum. Recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and produces 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing new aluminum.

So aluminum wreaks havoc on the environment when it’s produced, but cans are recycled at double the rate of bottles and they are 95% less resource-intensive to recycle.  Add to this the fact that cans are lighter and therefore require less energy to ship to the store shelves, and the water in this debate becomes muddier than the slurry running off a buaxite mine.

I think the only respectable thing for me to do is to get a kegerator and buy my beer exclusively in reusable corny kegs.  I’m sure my wife will understand.  Don’t be pissed honey, I’m saving the planet!

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Categories: Beer, Lifestyle

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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36 Comments on “What’s Better for the Environment, Craft Beer in Bottles or Cans?”

  1. October 12, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Of course, you could just buy growlers at your local brewpub (provided they refill your returned growler). That seems to be the greenest way to purchase beer – especially if you bike to the brewpub.

    • October 12, 2011 at 10:52 am #

      Good point, Ken, as long as you have a local brew pub. Unfortunately, I do not. But I do recycle 99% of the cans and bottles that come through my house. I always imagine my garbage men marveling at my awesome taste in beer!

  2. Angela Arp
    October 12, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    I saw the same article yesterday and came to the same conclusion from their numbers that Cans are the lesser of two evils!
    a few things that they don’t consider in the Cans article you state, but they do in the

    The Great Canned vs Bottled Beer Debate 2.0: Craft Brewing Weighs In
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/05/great-canned-bottled-beer-debate-20-craft-brewing-weighs/?dhiti=1

    is the transportation costs – I think that if they take that into the equation, Cans look even better~

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:01 am #

      I agree. And for the record, the link in your comment was also in the post I wrote.

  3. johnking82
    October 12, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    My wife tends to prefers hers in the can.

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:00 am #

      You went there, huh?

  4. Michael
    October 12, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Small pipelines directly to homes is the only way to go. Build ’em once and last a lifetime.

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:00 am #

      Now THAT’S how we’re gonna save the world, folks. Beer pipes!

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:22 am #

      That would make considerably me less upset about the lack of flying cars and pneumatic transport tubes in 2011.

      • October 12, 2011 at 11:52 am #

        I agree. I was watching Blade Runner the other night, and the movie begins with “Los Angeles 2019” which means the flying cars, the genetically-engineered pleasure models better get here pronto! At least we have a general sense of dystopia…

        • October 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

          There’s still time! Eight years is more than enough to wipe out most animals on Earth, form off-world colonies, and implant memories into synthetic humans. Let’s go, science and industry!

  5. October 12, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I insist on using wine skins made of buffalo hide when bottling my beer. American Bison are an inexhaustible resource according to an 1875 article on the subject. The buffalo hide also imparts a nice jerky flavor to my homebrew.

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      I prefer fermenting in Mammoth tusks, but to each his own…

  6. October 12, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Okay Jim, hot button time!

    I make no apologies, I’m a tree-hugger–always have been–my friends suspect I’m a Druid–always will be.

    The truth is that no matter what we do, we’re gonna have an environmental impact–we’re part of that environment, not apart from it. The underlying problem is that there are just too damn many of us. If there were, say a billion humans on earth, the environmental impact would be manageable, but 8 billion? Way too many.

    Until we put a lid on growth, our impact is only gonna increase. Anything else we do in the meantime is a band aid– a necessary band-aid, but a band aid nonetheless.

    So, the simple answer is to do what you personally think will have the least negative impact. And yes, that can be hard to determine some times because their are a lot of variables to consider and there are always unintended consequences to everything we do. But each of us can tread more lightly upon the land by: recycling, buying locally, opting for renewable energy sources, consolidating our shopping trips, driving more fuel efficient cars, keeping our tires inflated, yadda, yadda, yadda. Finally, mow and water that lawn less often, forget the Scott’s Weedn’Feed, let those dandelions, that clover, ground-ivy and chickweed grow Sit back and enjoy a good beer (or two), instead.

    • October 12, 2011 at 11:58 am #

      Agreed. I think we’ll figure it out, hopefully not too late. We don’t plan well as a species – we need a crisis to motivate us to care about something. I think that time is almost upon us.

  7. October 12, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    Hard to tell, looks like cans may be a little more “green”, but it just tastes so much better out of a bottle to me.

    • October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

      I hope you mean AFTER you pour it into a glass – I’m a glassware-Nazi.

      The other night my wife was drinking a Dale’s Pale Ale from the can while I was talking on the phone to my mom. I saw this, took out a glass, poured her beer into it, and took away the can without even making eye contact. But I saw enough in my peripheral vision to know she was rolling her eyes at me. 🙂

      • October 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

        Nope, have hardly ever poured it into a glass, but I will try it just to put you at ease. lol

        • October 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

          Please do! The glass is MANDATORY!!! 🙂

          But seriously, beer is better in the air, as the “bouquet” is a big part of the flavor and sensory experience.

  8. Don
    October 12, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    I don’t wanna think this hard!!!!! IT HURTS!!!

    • October 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

      Just keep hugging your tree, Donny Bear!

  9. October 12, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    I remember a similar article about the can vs. bottle debate on Slate.com a couple years ago (here’s the link: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2008/03/wear_green_drink_greenly.single.html).

    Here’s the question…

    Whatever happened to the returnable bottles that I remember my Dad buying when I was a kid? Granted, the beer pretty much sucked (Carling Black Label, Rolling Rock, Miller, etc.), but it used to come in these heavy duty cardboard boxes and those thick glass bottles that were re-used many times over. We’d also get soda (Frank’s soda in quart bottles that came in a re-usable wooden crate to be exact) in similar containers. Anyone else remember these? Though I guess for this to work, the brewery would have to be pretty close to it’s consumers or brewers would have to agree on a bottle size and bottle color to maybe use a bottle recycling company. Then all they’d have to do is slap on a new label.

    • October 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

      Yeah, those times are long gone. I remember getting Coke (before it was “Classic”) in world-weary glass bottles. I guess it’s cheaper to recycle and re-manufacture them – money rules the world.

      • October 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

        It may be cheaper in the short-run, but the long-term costs are what’s biting us all in the ass now.

  10. October 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Even better, I can remember when we kids went from door to door in the neighborhood to collect those used bottles. We’d wash ’em up and then take ’em to the corner Mom n’ Pop to get our spending money. (Of course, I also remember 7 cent cokes and 2 fer a penny pretzels! LOL) The Boy Scouts also used to have bottle drives to make money for their troops.

    The concept of throw-away everything is only a cupla generations old, maybe we need to revive some of the old practices.

    • October 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

      Recycled cans and bottles are the primary income of homeless people and small children. At least that was the case when I was a kid.

  11. October 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Excellent! I have been thinking about writing on this very topic for my “green” drinks (no cheesy St. Patrick’s Day Budweiser with dye) column on Examiner, so thanks for the references!

    I’d add that aluminum is a conductor so it cools faster when you put the beer in the fridge, which in turn reduces your electricity usage. The only advantage here for bottles is that, once cold, if the power goes out then a glass-insulated cold beer will stay cold and will help to preserve your perishable foods.

    Cans also stack better than bottles and thus require less packaging and/or stack better in the truck, so a more efficient use of space = reduced transportation costs.

    • October 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      All true. That said, I still don’t know which is better, but I prefer to buy cans when I can, as the offer more options for use and storage than bottles.

      Screw the planet – it’s all about MEEEEEEEEE!

  12. October 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    In keeping w/ this Green vein, I just picked up a sixer of Yards Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale–purported to be based on Tom’s original recipe, which included rye and honey. Of course, I couldn’t wait to try it (I had special ordered it), and the wife was out shopping, so I had one w/ lunch.

    Turns out its all good news:

    1) Yards claims that they’re the Greenest brewery in Philly and are striving to be 100% wind-powered (kinda like this Blog no?). So even tho they use bottles they’re on the plus-side in our bottles vs. cans debate.

    2) Its good! A dark amber American-style ale, with a moderate head but good lacing, its strong, 8% ABV w/ lots and lots of hoppiness and a heavier than average body. The hoppy-bitter aftertaste lingers a bit but the aftertaste of honey lasts even longer. Its a keeper!

    So bottom-line for you Jim is that its local, its Green, its a higher ABV and its good! You can’t lose on this one. Sorry Don, I doubt that you can get it in IA.

    • Don
      October 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

      Well maybe in Iowa (IA) but probably not in Idaho (ID). 😉

  13. October 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    Sorry ’bout that, my genealogical research has got IA on my mind.

    • Don
      October 14, 2011 at 9:08 am #

      They are easily confused. I actually have to check with people when I make reservations and the like to make sure they put down ID instead if IA. It is a fairly common mistake. I guess having lived in both states I’m more aware than most of the confusion over the abbreviation. 😉

  14. October 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    I think that “recyclability” means nothing unless the consumer actually recycles, so it’s up to us users. I pitch all my aluminum into the recycle bin, and will even bring cans home from work if they don’t have a bin. But I also soak the labels off of 12 oz bottles if they don’t have twist-offs or embossed logos, because those can be filled with homebrew for homebrew competitions. And of course, 22 oz bottles also get filled with homebrew, only because I haven’t had the money to invest in kegging yet.

    • October 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

      I agree that if you don’t recycle, then that term has no meaning. But for the average person who is good about it, i think cans are the way to go. For homebrewing beer geeks, it’s a whole different story!

  15. October 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    I think the greenest option is to drink more bourbon more bang in the bottle means less material needed and less transportation (I love my Irish whiskey but I must heed those pesky transportation costs.)

    • October 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

      Even better, canned whiskey!

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