Here's a job we all want — carrying out a life cycle assessment of beer. One would have to really do some serious investigation to get realistic statistics on the "use phase". But seriously, the cover story on the March issue of the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment is the LCA of an Italian Lager Beer (see the full article citation at the end of this post).
When comparing one litre of draught beer with one litre of bottled beer neither one comes out as the hands-down more environmentally-friendly choice. Both have comparable environmental impacts, which are not very significant. Draught beer, due to its "bulk" packaging has lower impacts with an estimated overall environmental load that was 68% lower than bottled beer. They say that the results for beer production were not very worrying and were consistent with the "widely held opinion that breweries have to be considered among the less energy consuming and less polluting activities in the industrial sector."(page 137). However, barley production was the area where the most impacts lie because of the large amounts of land area required.
Consideration of Pesticides:
They do not go into detail about pesticide use in this article (but that doesn't mean the study doesn't consider it), which I found rather interesting. But their results still show that the packaging and use phases have almost equal impacts on "ecosystem quality" as the agricultural phase. They do say that "barley cultivation was a very important process" (page 139) and that it should be given further investigation. I assume here they mean regarding pesticide use, although it is not explicitly stated.
The Biggest Impact:
The study reports that the some of the most important impacts come from what the LCA sector calls the "use" phase. That is how the beer is kept chilled, how it is served, how the drinker gets to the beer and how they get home. The biggest impact here was when they compared the assumption that people might drive up to 5km to go for a drink.
One of their main conclusions is that the further people drive to get the beer, the greater the impact it has. Their recommendation for the most effective way of reducing the impacts of beer is by promoting draught beer and reducing car use to get to your beer. Bottom line: try walking, riding your bike or taking the bus to reduce those life cycle impacts of your alcohol consumption.
Article citation: Cordella M, Tugnoli A, Spadoni G, Santarelli F, Zangrando T (2008) LCA of an Italian Lager Beer. Int J LCA 13 (2) 133-139.
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More on Life Cycle Assessment:
Paper Bags or Plastic Bags: Everything You Need to Know.
Life Cycle Analysis of Tap Water vs Bottled Water.
The Time of My Life Cycle.
Greener Dryer Better: LCA of Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels.