It is surprisingly hard to determine whether beer in glass bottles is more or less eco-friendly than beer in aluminum cans. But in light of OPB reporter Rob Manning’s story on Portland’s canned beer festival this weekend, I decided to take a gander. After all, it’s Foodie Friday, and packaging is officially part of the eco-food discussion.
Canned beer advocates often claim that aluminum cans are the greener vessel because aluminum is lighter, which makes for a smaller carbon footprint from transportation than glass. And it’s more likely to be recycled. Recycling aluminum offers big-time energy savings when it comes to producing the next round of aluminum cans. But do those factors really make aluminum cans greener than glass bottles?
Some say yes. Here’s what Kim Moratta, director of social sustainability of MillerCoors, said when Forbes asked which packaging had a smaller carbon footprint:
“We look at it from packaging footprint. An aluminum can has a smaller carbon footprint than the glass bottle. Also, the bottle has a paper label on it, and paper has a lot of water content in it. Part of the reason the carbon footprint for an aluminum can is lower is that the aluminum can has more recycled content than any other beverage container. It’s approximately 68%. Generally speaking, every time you drink a can of beer and you recycle it, some part of that can will be back up in a shop within the next 60 days. The other part that’s interesting is that if you make a can out of recycled content, it requires 95% less energy. So in the carbon-footprint equation, recycling is really a key component.”
But others say no, the glass bottle is actually eco-friendlier if you account for the entire life cycle of the aluminum – including extraction of raw materials and the energy required to produce it. Here’s a detailed explanation from Slate:
“Between the mine and the brewery’s loading dock, at least, glass bottles are the clear winner. Aluminum is made from bauxite, which requires substantial, land-scarring effort to extract from the Earth; the United States imports virtually all of its bauxite from the likes of Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica, where mining operations have caused environmental controversy. Glass, by contrast, is made from the more easily accessible silica. As a result of bauxite mining’s environmental toll, manufacturing a 12-ounce aluminum can is twice as energy-intensive as making a similarly sized glass bottle: 2.07 kilowatt hours of electricity for the can vs. 1.09 kilowatt hours for the bottle.”
In an attempt to break the tie, I had a nice long talk with David Allaway, a solid waste policy analyst at Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Turns out, part of his job is figuring out the environmental impact of packaging. He said although he would need to see a full life cycle analysis of both glass and aluminum to be sure, he wouldn’t be surprised if the energy demands of producing aluminum outweigh all the benefits of the lighter transportation load and ease of recycling. In short, he was not convinced that cans were the greener option:
“The environmental impact is dominated by what it takes to make it in the first place. When you recycle the aluminum you significantly reduce the impact of making it. But that doesn’t mean the aluminum can you’re buying is made from 100 percent recycled aluminum. Most of the damage is done once you buy a product. To really understand the environmental impacts you have to look upstream. Only then can you have a decent understanding of what’s the better choice. The requirements to recycle either of these materials are so small that they’re trivial. Recycling 100 beer bottles requires more energy than recycling 100 aluminum cans, but making the aluminum cans requires a lot more energy.”
There are many considerations, he acknowledged, but after hearing him out and reading many other bottle v. can debates, I found one point on which everyone agrees: Your best bet for green beer is drinking a pint of local brew from the tap of a local pub.