As a craft brewer who fills both glass bottles and aluminum cans with delicious beers, we inevitably receive questions (and have our own) regarding the environmental impact of each container. A comprehensive, unbiased study comparing the total environmental impact of glass bottles to that of aluminum cans does not exist. So we see a lot of guessing going on out there and many of those guesses are being stated as though they were ultimate facts.
Below are some questions we hear often along with answers based on the research we’ve done. Remember, though, that since a comprehensive study has never been conducted, we don’t really know which container is ultimately environmentally superior.
Which container is sustainable?
Neither! Both containers have a net negative impact on the environment.
Okay, well which container comes closest to being sustainable?
With the data we have reviewed, no clear winner.
The beginning of the lifecycle of the aluminum can (mining of bauxite, smelting of aluminum) has a larger impact than glass. But later in their lifecycles, the glass bottle has the larger impact (heavier to transport and more difficult to recycle). At the end of the day it’s possible they even out.
The best container is the one that ends up in the recycling bin.
Both aluminum and glass can be recycled an infinite number of times and doing so has many benefits:
- Reducing impact from mining virgin material (The mining of bauxite for aluminum is highly toxic to the land due to the chemicals used in the process. The mining of the materials needed to make glass is also destructive, but less so).
- Reducing energy required to melt virgin material (melting recycled material requires less heat: Recycled aluminum uses 95% less energy and recycled glass uses 30% less energy.)
Improving the U.S. economy
- Americans landfill $2 billion worth of aluminum every year!
- Create more jobs (recycling offers jobs in the U.S. while mining occurs outside the U.S.)
But I thought cans are more sustainable because they are lighter to ship?
It is true that the transportation of cans, since being lighter and stacking better, requires less fuel and is therefore more ecofriendly than the transportation of bottles. However, this is only one little segment of the entire lifecycle of the container and not enough info to make a verdict. It would be like saying, “Well, I got an ‘A’ in my freshman history class, so that means I graduated college with a 4.0 GPA.” We wish! But remember, we also had calculus classes and biochemistry and perhaps the occasional hangover, and so most of us didn’t achieve A’s throughout the lifecycle of our college career. Just like our GPA depends on several steps throughout our college life, the sustainability of one container or another depends on the many steps throughout its own lifecycle (from mining all the way to disposal).
But I thought glass bottles were more sustainable because the mining of bauxite to make aluminum was so destructive and toxic?
The same notions apply here as to the question above. Yes, mining of bauxite has giant ecological impacts that are arguably greater than those of mining sand for glass. But, again, it’s only one segment of the story.
What can beer drinkers do to make a meaningful difference?
- Recycle your cans and bottles.
- If you are at a bar or restaurant that doesn’t offer recycling, encourage them to do so. If they don’t know where to start, tell them they can find recycling facilities here: http://earth911.com/ or request a meeting with their local waste hauler.
- Little nerd note: Glass is difficult to pull out at a sorting facility, so throwing it in your commingled bin doesn’t ensures it will be recycled. Implementing a glass-only recycling bin will give the glass the best chance of being recycled. And, of course, the glass needs to stay glass-only until it reaches the recycler!
How can my love for drinking beer have the absolute lowest impact today?
Drink draft beer out of a reusable cup.
What is New Belgium Brewing doing to make a difference?
- Conducting and commissioning studies that help us to better understand the environmental impact of our beverage containers and our opportunities to improve it.
A greenhouse gas (GHG) study was commissioned in 2011 comparing the GHG emissions of the two containers. ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND that GHG emissions are ONLY ONE part of the story. Not considered in this study are toxicity, water quality and quantity, biodiversity, human health and total ecosystem health. The results of this study, while important to know, are not an absolute verdict on these packages, only a segment of the story. The results of the study showed aluminum cans having fewer GHG emissions than glass bottles. However, the main contributor to this difference was the fact that factories melting glass are getting their power from fossil fuels (high GHG emissions) and factories smelting the aluminum are strategically sourcing their power from hydro (which requires reservoirs & dams, but avoids the GHG emissions from fossil fuels). Of course, hydro power looks great through the lens of GHG emissions. However, generating hydro power requires rivers to be diverted and dammed – a process that has severe ecological effects not accounted for in GHG emissions studies and a process that New Belgium has actively opposed in Colorado and throughout the U.S.
- Decreasing the weight of our bottles, therefore reducing resource consumption and the impact of bottle transportation.
- We are helping to lead an industry-wide effort initiated by Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) to increase recycling of consumer packaging and printed materials 20% by 2015. This is a HUGE step.
- Through our participation in Future500, we are monitoring potential legislation around packaging called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a strategy that “uses financial incentives to encourage manufacturers to design environmentally-friendly products by holding producers responsible for the costs of managing their products at end of life.”
- Striving for strokes of genius that will land a revolutionary packaging idea into our laps!
-the NBB Team Sustainability
PS: Check back next month for our thoughts on BPA