Happy Earth Day! Let’s take some time to consider the ways humans impact the planet. As an avid beer drinker, I know I generate a lot of waste in the form of empty beer bottles and cans. It’s something I try to be conscious of when I consume my favorite beverage. Drinking draft beer is the most earth-friendly choice, but that’s often not an option. Here in Utah, beer above 4% ABV must be packaged, and so we find ourselves with the dilemma of choosing between glass bottles and aluminum cans. The good news is, both can be recycled! But, it’s up to us to make a choice to see our empty containers reach the recycling bin.
During Utah’s 2019 legislative session, lawmakers contemplated raising the state’s alcohol limit on beer allowed in grocery stores and on draft. There were concerns over whether this would lead to more alcohol consumption and increased underage drinking, but there was one important consideration absent from the debate – the environment. Requiring that all beer over 4% ABV be packaged is essentially a decree to the beer industry and its consumers to increase their carbon footprint. Breweries serving high-point beer are a good illustration of the absurdity of this policy. They make the beer, package it, then immediately turn around and pour it out for their customers. It’s difficult to grasp what purpose this serves. Utah eventually did raise the limit from 4% to 5% ABV, but it’s hard to see how this small change will make much of a difference. It’s my hope that any future push for no limits on draft beer will include some thought for our planet.
Of course, we beer drinkers still enjoy taking our beer to-go and want to fill our coolers with it. With more breweries using canning lines, our choices for craft beer have expanded beyond the glass bottle. But which is actually better for the environment? Because aluminum cans are so much lighter, their carbon footprint during transportation is smaller. However, making the cans involves mining for the mineral bauxite in countries like Guinea and Australia, a process that can have negative environmental impacts. Glass is heavier and more costly to transport, but it’s made from liquefied sand, soda ash, limestone, and recycled glass – materials that are broadly available within the United States.
Both glass bottles and aluminum cans are 100% recyclable. In many places, cans are easier to recycle because there are numerous receptacles to collect them, and curbside recycling programs are more likely to take them. But, only about 45% of aluminum cans end up being recycled requiring more bauxite to be mined to make new cans. By comparison, approximately 80% of glass bottles are re-made into new glass bottles. Bottom line: If you can find aluminum cans made from 100% recycled material, they will be your most earth-friendly option. If not, glass is best.
Whether you choose to buy beer in cans or bottles, it’s important to keep them out of landfills. I’m lucky enough to live in a city that provides a curbside recycling program. That service takes cans, but not glass. Momentum Recycling does offer curbside collection in parts of Salt Lake County and Park City, but not where I live – yet. There are several glass drop-off locations convenient to me, so I load up my car periodically and take it to the dumpster. Visit the Momentum Recycling website for drop-off locations, to sign up for a curbside bin, or request service in your area. If you’re not sure where to take recyclables in your neighborhood, visit the Earth911 search page. The Utah Recycling Alliance is another great resource for those interested in working toward a zero-waste future.
The absolute coolest glass bottle recycling program I’ve ever seen was at a brewery in Missoula, Montana. Check out my previous article, Bayern Brewing: German Tradition from Montana, with Love, to learn more about them and their amazing state-of-the-art bottle washer. It would be great to see more breweries able to invest in a program like theirs. Not only do they re-use their own bottles, but they also collect bottles from other breweries in the area to wash and fill again with beer. Homebrewers are another group known to wash and re-use glass bottles. If you know one, ask if they would like to take your empties off your hands.
As we celebrate Earth Day, let us all take a moment to consider how we can be more responsible beer drinkers. It’s our planet that gives us the very beer we love. Give a little love back by drinking draft and recycling your bottles and cans.