Sustainability part 2: 99 bottles of beer on the wall. Or should they be cans?
1.7 billion litres of beer are consumed annually by Australians alone. That’s a lot of beer, but also a lot of packaging. This second part of our sustainability blog takes look into the environmental impact of different vessels, so you can be better informed about how to consume your favourite brew.
Many breweries are switching from bottles to cans for multiple reasons, and there are huge ecological benefits for doing so. Cans are much lighter than glass bottles (15g vs 190g respectively), can stack easily and therefore transported much easier. A canned beer takes up less space so transport is more efficient, reducing the carbon footprint associated with distributions, not to mention the fragility of glass leading to wasted product and safety hazards.
Just 46% of Australia’s glass is being recycled. The rest is either buried in landfill or being stored indefinitely due to state laws. It is currently cheaper to import glass bottles than recycle them in Australia, so there is little financial incentive to recycle bottles. Most of our glass bottles are imported from overseas made from virgin glass, however once in Australia, glass collected from kerbside recycling is recycled back into glass packaging at O-I plants in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. O-I’s recycled bottles are made of 39% recycled glass, with the goal of reaching 60% recycled content longer term, once the proportion of recycled glass increases in circulation. Hobart City Council claims that all glass from Hobart's recycling bins is recycled within Tasmania, but not into bottles. Up to 80% goes into producing bricks and pavers, and the remaining 20% is used by local construction industries as a sand/gravel substitute in civil construction works.
So how do cans compare? Aluminium is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, and Australia is the largest producer of aluminium in the world, but cans are not all innocent. Bauxite, the raw material from which aluminium ore is taken, is a mined natural resource and the mining of bauxite is hard on the planet. It is estimated that 4 tonnes of bauxite are required for 1 tonne of aluminium sheet. The mining and processing to make that aluminium takes considerably more energy than making virgin glass, however once aluminium is produced, it takes 90% less energy to recycle compared with glass and aluminium can be recycled infinitely without losing its properties. A can made of recycled aluminium requires about 95% less energy to produce than one made from non-recycled materials (compared to closer to about 25% energy savings for glass).
For years canned beer has carried the reputation of being ‘cheap’ with the idea that they carry a metallic ‘tinny’ taste. This metallic reputation is left over from when cans used to be made from tin. Cans have come a long way, first being made from tin, then steel and now aluminium. Nowadays cans are made from 100% recyclable aluminium which do not carry detectable flavour contaminants. If you can detect metallic flavours in your beer, it is more likely caused at the brewery by poor quality brewing equipment leaching iron into the brew, or you are smelling the metal when drinking it out of the can. As we covered in an earlier blog, you should always be pouring your beer into a glass to fully enjoy the experience anyway. It turns out cans were made for beer, and beer was made for cans. The proteins in beer act as oxygen scavengers – which means the oxygen in beer does not corrode the aluminium because it is being consumed by the beer proteins. The only reason aluminium cans require a coating to store beer, is so the carbon dioxide doesn’t escape. Coating the inside of the can smooths out the surface of the metal so the gas cannot form bubbles on micro bumps that may be present on the uncoated metal.
While cans are better for the environment than glass bottles once they have been produced, less packing is obviously better. If you are conscious of environmental sustainability, the best option is to ditch the single-serve packaging altogether—filling reusable squealers or growlers; large glass bottles 900ml and 1890ml respectively.
These vessels can be used over and over again and allow you to enjoy local craft beer at home, without the waste. See The Crafty Pint's list of breweries who offer this service across Australia.
Stainless steel kegs are considered the most sustainable option due to their reusability and large volumes. Kegstar’s keg leasing program helps to reduce emissions as shared kegs are better utilised across the country, travelling one way then going back into use in local breweries instead of being freighted back empty.
So how can you, the consumer, make more environmentally friendly choices of how to fill your glass? If you can find beer in 100% recycled cans, then this is your best bet for single-serve beer drinking. Better yet, choosing locally made beer, served on tap from refillable steel kegs is your best choice if you want to reduce your carbon beerprint.
Support your local breweries and pubs by drinking beer at a bar! It is also a great idea to choose to support breweries you know are making an effort in water use reduction or clean energy sourcing (Part 1) to further clear your climate conscience.