You’ve probably heard the “drink local” slogan a thousand times. But have you ever thought about the impact it could have on the environment if more of us actually committed to it? The truth is that beer has a sizable carbon footprint, and not just in the way it’s made, but in the way it’s distributed and consumed. The impact of consumer behavior and purchasing decisions is surprisingly profound. The good news and the bad news is that our actions count for something. It’s not by accident that most beer bars these days have offerings from all over the world, or that the number of breweries now packaging their offerings in cans has exploded in recent years. Consumer preference is often the driver of such trends. So what can we do to lessen beer’s environmental impact? Three things: REDUCE, Reuse, recycle – and in that order*. Read on to learn how and why.
The single biggest thing you can do to be an environmentally conscious beer drinker is to go for hyperlocal brands whenever possible. Even better, frequent your neighborhood brewery and sip a few pints right from the taproom. Nothing beats drinking from the source. On-premise consumption from reusable kegs limits your beer’s carbon footprint and yields the highest profit margin for the brewery. Why encourage all that use of fossil fuels for deliveries from far off breweries when you can choose from so many amazing options being brewed (insert name of your state, province, or country here). In some communities, a whopping 30 percent or more of their greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.
One article I recently read points out that as delivery chains extend farther, so does the pollution associated with them. The fewer miles delivery trucks drive with beer, or the less we drive in pursuit of it, the less particulate matter and carbon monoxide that pollutes the air we breathe. It might not be a slogan, but we all “breathe local.” So whenever possible, use public transportation, hop on a bike, or hoof it (walk) to a nearby brewery. An added benefit to drinking local is that the money boosts your local economy.
Things gets a bit trickier for the environmentally conscious beer drinker when it comes to takeaway beer. Much has been written on the demise of the once-mighty growler, but most eco-minded breweries still fill them. From an industry perspective, especially if you’re one of the big players, there’s no doubt that aluminum cans are a superior method for distribution and retail sales. Viewed through an environmental lens, however, eliminating refillable growlers in favor of cans and bottles is kind of a big deal. Even if 100% of the single-use containers sold and consumed were recycled, though most of the world is nowhere close to that mark**, it’s important to consider the vast amounts of energy associated with collecting, sorting, reprocessing, and delivering them back to the brewery. A refillable growler has just 5% of the carbon footprint a recycled can or bottle has, and uses far less water and energy to prepare it for its next fill.
On occasions when you’re unable to go the on-premises draught or refillable growler route, you’re left with no other option than to try and properly recycle your non-refillable*** bottles, cans, and maybe (big maybe) those pesky plastic can carriers. Unfortunately, recycling rates for both glass and aluminum are far lower than they should be, especially considering both materials are infinitely recyclable, meaning they can be recycled over and over without loss of material quality. The same cannot be said for plastic, which worldwide is currently recycled (or more accurately downcycled****) at a woeful rate of just 18 percent. For some important tips on how to increase the odds of your empties being recycled, check out the related blog post below.
In closing, I invite you to take the ultimate eco-friendly beer drinker challenge for a month, week, or even just a day: (1st level) buy your beer directly from the source – i.e. a brewery, (2nd level) avoid single-use beer vessel waste – including cans, bottles, and disposable cups, (3rd level) use only public transportation, bike, or your feet when traveling to and from breweries.
*Note 1: Many well intended consumers believe that recycling alone is enough. The truth is that at current consumption rates, especially with a population of 7.8 billion (and growing), recycling single-use items like beer bottles/cans is not sustainable. Following the common advice of REDUCE – Reuse – recycle in its intended order cannot be over stated.
**Note 2: The global recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans is estimated at 73%. In the U.S. it’s considerably worse, just under 50%.
***Note 3: Germany, parts of Canada, and the state of Oregon all currently have successful refillable bottle programs.
****Note 4: Plastic is rarely recycled: the current global rate is just 18% according to the OECD. And most of that is actually downcycled, meaning it’s all thrown together to make products of lesser quality that aren’t themselves recyclable at the end of their life. Ultimately, all plastic ends up as waste which goes to landfill, gets incinerated, or often leaks into the environment as pollution. And there is mounting evidence of health implication associated with unintended human consumption of plastic.