Sustainability of cans versus bottles

Sustainability recycling cans crushed

Determining sustainability is a difficult exercise, and while cans and bottles have their relative merits, brewers should be thinking about their supply chain and upstream too according to industry professionals.

The industry’s move to cans has been monumental, with brewers lauding the amount of creative real estate of the lighter and less breakable containers (cutting down wastage and carbon footprints in transit) which allow less light and oxygen ingress, in turn keeping beer fresher for longer.

But determining a container’s sustainable and environmental credentials throughout its lifecycle, from raw materials and production to how effectively it can be recycled, is another matter.

Chris Chamberlain is national sales manager at Envirobank, which supplies and operates recycling technology for the container deposit schemes in Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory (where it is also the scheme co-ordinator).

He explained the difficulties of recycling, its relationship to customer demands and with the end user of the recycled goods. He said that one of the best things brewers can do initially, before even delving deeper into the sustainability of materials, is to encourage their customers to recycle their containers.

“[It would be great for] brewers to promote information on the benefits to the environment to their consumers in their own language.

“Imagine Mick Fanning telling Balter drinkers that as surfers we need to make sure we care for the environment by bringing back all of our lovely XPA cans to be recycled.

“Or a beer company promoting the sourcing and usage of recycled glass or aluminium. The brands themselves leveraging their own messaging to include a recycling focus would be cool.”

One of the many breweries looking into this aspect of sustainability is Stone & Wood. Head of sustainability James Perrin and the team brought in consultancy Edge Environment to analyse their supply chain and upstream recycling with its Pacific Ale.

“In our case, we told Edge how many bottles, cans, and kegs we purchase, where they are made, how they are shipped to use, and how many we produce in a year.

“They were then able to calculate the emissions and impacts for our specific case.”

These investigations led Stone & Wood to look more closely at the materials they use – but it’s a complex issue, one which potentially has no definitive answer.

Cans vs bottles

On the question of whether cans or bottles are easier to recycle, Envirobank’s Chris Chamberlain acknowledged that it was a tricky one.

“It has a couple of layers. If you compared both materials and assumed both were made from virgin materials, glass is the most environmentally friendly.

“If however you look at it from a recycling perspective, aluminium is easier to process, ship and recycle to use again.

“It’s also lighter per volume to ship as a container so the fuel costs etc. can be considered to move glass. A full stubby is a lot heavier than a full tinnie that both hold 375ml so has a larger carbon footprint.”

It takes 90 per cent less energy to recycle aluminium than it does to recycle glass, but on the flipside, to make that virgin aluminium in the first place requires considerably more energy and resources than to make glass, and it is estimated that creating 1 tonne of aluminium can take as much as 4 tonnes of bauxite, the raw material from which aluminium ore is taken.

Stone & Wood, like many other brewers, has been internally debating the relative merits of cans versus bottles, and announced last year that its bestselling Pacific Ale would now permanently be available in can format.

But that doesn’t mean they have given up on bottles entirely, and brewers shouldn’t be apprehensive about using materials that have already been recycled.

“Glass bottles can continue to be recycled into new bottles which is a nice closed-loop process,” according to James Perrin.

“Aluminium cans are also fully recyclable and I believe they generally get made into other aluminium products. We shouldn’t be scared of using products made from recycled materials!”

One of the factors driving what is both easy to recycle and in-demand is the attitudes and beliefs of customers, according to Chamberlain.

“Basically, consumer sentiment is what drives commercial activity.

“If consumers believe one [material] is better than companies will respond. Glass and aluminium are great to recycle.

“PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester) is probably the easiest with a huge range of applications, but of course has the worst name as a material due to plastic in the oceans, so you see companies moving away from it.

“Ironically some of the solutions, like paper cartons, have a very small market for companies to recycle so while perception is that these are better than plastic, they are not often actually recycled due to the complexity of separating all of the different materials.”

Sorting recycling

One of the difficulties of recycling, particularly kerbside recycling, is that it takes a lot of time and effort to sort a multitude of recycling into different materials and colours.

Glass and plastic in particular are seen as difficult to recycle when it comes to sorting, as different colours need to be separated before they can be reused.

Chamberlain explained that using reverse vending machines, or sending recycled materials direct and pre-sorted, can help the process along.

“If you compare simply putting things into the co-mingled recycling bins where everything is together and then complex machinery attempts to separate the different resources for re-use, when you bring your stubby or can to Envirobank, without knowing it, you’ve already made an important step in sorting these materials to be recycled,” he said.

Barcode recognition in these machines or depot points means that the containers can then be sorted into aluminium can, glass stubby, clear or colored PET water bottle and so on.

“For all but glass we take these containers and put them into an industrial baler, crush them into cubes and then they are offered for sale as a resource. There is quite a market for this clean product and they all get re-used.”

He said that one of the best things brewers can do if they are looking to help the recycling sector upstream is to help pre-sort, and send it directly to the recycling centre.

“I would think the main way [to help] would be for major venues to actively participate in sorting and returning containers to be recycled,” Chamberlain explained.

This concept is something that Stone & Wood has already started to invest in, in conjunction with bottle supplier O-I.

“We realised that we were putting our waste glass into yellow co-mingled skips, which would then be collected by a truck which would mix it in with other recycled waste streams, and then it would need to be separated out again at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

“When we realised that O-I actually operate a cullet (recycled glass) facility, we thought, let’s just ship our glass straight back to them and bypass that whole yellow/co-mingled system altogether. So we’re sending our waste product straight back to the supplier.”

So while the issue is not cut and dried, with many different points of view, container materials and their long term sustainability are major issues that brewers should be thinking about.

Perrin finished by saying that even the smallest of breweries can get involved in sustainable practices.

“I would say just start by doing your best. You may not make the biggest change overnight but if you truly care about sustainability then set that as a value and make future business decisions from there.

“Talk with your suppliers and waste contractors about what services they can offer. And get in touch with other brewers and the IBA, who have just kicked off a Sustainability Project Group to try to tackle some of our industry-wide issues collaboratively.”

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