Does scale matter to sustainability?

The craft beer industry prides itself on its ties to the community. While there is fierce competition, there is also collaboration, and when it comes to sustainability there seems to be a genuine regard for the environment.

While many small brewers pride themselves on their social awareness, scale arguably gives larger breweries an advantage in what they may achieve in terms of sustainability.

When a big corporation like Carlton & United Breweries makes an adjustment to its supply chain, the repercussions are far reaching. Its September announcement to discontinue plastic six-pack ring packaging at its Cascade Brewery means that its reported use of over one million plastic six-pack ring packages per year would cease. With its remaining breweries to follow suit over the next 12 months, this move by CUB will have a significant impact.

James Perrin, Sustainability Manager for Stone & Wood, agrees that growth and profitability have advantages, saying scale has allowed Stone & Wood to also invest in sustainability projects.

However, in his view, it’s the community engagement of small brewers that makes their operations equally sustainable, and primed to take on projects in the future when they have more capital.

“To say that bigger breweries are more sustainable because they’re more efficient, that’s not taking an holistic view,” Perrin explained.

“Community is very linked to sustainability.

“You can have all the money in the world, a big, huge, flash brewery and you might be the most efficient brewery within those walls, but you might be completely disconnected from the community around you.

“There’s this element of being aware of your surroundings outside of the brewery walls and being conscious of your footprint and how you interact there.”

From a sustainability viewpoint, Perrin said, it’s not always about internal brewery spend but more about working with surrounding businesses, and enabling them to improve their efficiencies.

Perrin told Brews News about Stone & Wood’s recent life cycle analysis of its Pacific Ale, which looked at all the environmental impacts from the entire supply chain.

“This included raw material production, transport to the brewery, all impacts of the brewery, all the downstream logistics and retail and sales.

“We looked at how that stacks up, how cans, bottles and kegs stack up against one another.

“The interesting thing – and we hear a lot about the bottle/can debate and which one is more sustainable – is that they came out that they’re about the same.The keg impact, was less than half.”

For Perrin, the findings show that a local approach is the best approach to sustainability.

“It starts with the values of thinking local, considering your community, give back and include your community in the way you operate your business, and that sets the foundations for later projects to happen.”

Scott Shomer, former environmental adviser to Santos in oil and gas and current owner of Brisbane’s Helios Brewing, told Brews News that while he is sceptical of environmental claims by many large and small breweries, he will never discount the efforts of any company trying to be sustainable.

Shomer, like Perrin, believes in an holistic approach to sustainability, telling Brews News that breweries should “look large”.

Shomer, who has been giving climate change and sustainability lectures in Australia since 2007, told Brews News that there is a lot of “green washing” in the beer industry.

“A lot of the big breweries want to appear sustainable, but they’re struggling to do so,” Shomer explained.

“Breweries by their very nature consume a lot of goods, a lot of electricity and they discharge waste and a lot of water.”

When designing Helios, Shomer said he took a design-from-scratch approach, instead of retrofitting like so many of the bigger operators. A large part of Shomer’s sustainable design comes from his partnership with a solar thermal outfit in Melbourne to install highly efficient solar collectors normally used in cooler climates like Tasmania.

“We had to engineer it so that it was safe and wouldn’t blow up on the roof but we’re basically the first brewery in Australia that’s using the sun to heat our brewing water.

“We’ve gotten our energy use down so low that we’re actually a net exporter of power.”

When it comes to the great can/bottle debate, Shomer explained that because Australia is so reliant on coal, aluminium production is essentially electricity-turned-into-metal and is “super high-energy” intensive.

When it comes to bottling lines, Shomer said that they also have their problems.

“When you have a bottling line, if you have one bottle that gets cracked or chipped, you’ve got to get rid of entire batch, so there’s a tremendous amount of wastage.”

Helios chose cans over bottles because they are more easily transported, but really because the local council said that they couldn’t have a bottling line.

For Shomer, if the industry is going to be truly sustainable, then it’s about the entire supply chain and cutting down carbon miles.

“Part of being sustainable is using local people and engaging the local community, and so the vast majority of our contractors came from within four blocks of where Helios is.”

“We spent over a quarter of a million dollars of our setup with truly local people.”

Having lived in Australia for 13 years, Shomer said that Australia has never established a price on carbon.

“What has happened through Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull, is that with no effective price on carbon, in the 13 years I’ve been here, there has been near zero investment in power infrastructure because it requires a 30 or 40 year return.

“There are international investors who want to invest in the powerplants of the future.

“But because the Australian Government has never had any sort of coherent [energy] policy, no banks will lend to anyone to put together the power plants of the future.

“Even countries like India and China are leaving us in the dust.

“The Australian Government needs to basically say yes, we support [investment in power infrastructure] and then get out of the way,” Shomer concluded.

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