Our Readers Respond: Beer in Cans Tastes Just Fine, Thanks to the BPA Coating

beer cans collected

Migrated Image The U.S. National Archives-412-DA-6268 / Flickr / 

My recent post Celebrating 76 Years of a Disposable Culture and Lousy Beer sparked some debate, not about the disposable can vs refillable bottle as I might have hoped, but about whether beer in cans is lousy or not.

Many readers thought that beer in cans tastes just fine, and one pointed me to an article explaining why: the cans are lined with epoxy made with Bisphenol A.

The article, in Chow.com, notes that micro-breweries are beginning to can their beer, thanks to changes in canning technology that make it affordable for smaller breweries. And why doesn't the beer have that metallic taste?

That's because aluminum beverage cans--whether Fat Tire, Budweiser, or Mountain Dew--are lined with a thin, food-grade polymer coating, which means the beer never touches metal. (The coating does contain BPA, but according to New Belgium's Tinkerer blog the amount is minuscule.)

Following that link, New Belgium claims:

According to the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., the amount of BPA migrating from can coatings would result in the consumption of less than 0.105 micrograms (0.000105 milligrams) per kilogram body weight per day. This level is more than 475 times lower than the maximum acceptable or "reference" dose for BPA of 0.05 milligrams per kilogram body weight per day, which was determined to be the safe life-time exposure dose by the USEPA in 1993.

So the world of the plastics industry and a 1993 standard are good enough for them. They also write:

We looked into the matter thoroughly. What became apparent is that there are no cans whose lining does not contain BPA. The industry is actively looking for alternatives, but as yet, none exist. We still believe the benefits of cans outweigh the potential risk of the liners because the anxiety surrounding BPA seems to have far outstripped the science.

But there is an alternative: the refillable bottle.

The cans are made by the Ball Corporation, who also make canning products that have BPA epoxy in their lids, and get away with it by saying:

A small amount of Bisphenol A is present in the coating. The FDA does not limit Bisphenol A in commercially packaged foods, and is aligned with the international scientific community's position that a small amount of Bisphenol A in contact with "canned foods" is not a health concern for the general public.

The science on BPA is controversial, and research is ongoing. So I am not saying that some of the effects of drinking beer, such as becoming stupid and depressed, or getting fat, or growing man boobs is due to the BPA linings rather than the beer itself, but it surprises me that people who wouldn't touch a polycarbonate bottle would happily down a can of beer when there is a perfectly good alternative.

Other readers disagreed about whether you could refill bottles. Joe thought I was dreaming:

You are missing several key points. First, you cannot legally take a bottle and re-fill it. You can't take a bottle back to the brewery, sell it back, and get a fresh bottle. The glass has to be recycled.

This is in fact not true; it is perfectly legal and is done in the states by some small breweries. According to the Container Recycling Institute,they have 3% of the market. In Massachusetts, they have 16% of the market, thanks to deposit legislation.

TreeHugger John Laumer notes that it is all about business:

Refilling makes economic and environmental sense when the brewery is withing 100 miles of it's market. Beyond that, the energy inputs from returning bottles to the bottling plant overcome the savings from not having to melt new glass or even cull glass. Plastic and aluminum allowed conglomerates to commoditize brands an optimise profits. Nothing to do with quality of the brew.

And finally, Jon made a very good point:

It's a lot more resource efficient to drink your beer as a draft, in a pub. More sociable too. And they generally give it to you in a reusable glass.

It doesn't make sense for anyone to take their drinking glasses or pots and pans and melt them down and recast them after every use; we put them in the dishwasher. Neither does it make any sense to melt down and recast a can or bottle every use, it is just trading energy for convenience. If we are ever going to be a zero waste society, we are going to have to accept that little bit of inconvenience.