Refillable Beer Bottling System Launched in Oregon

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It is by far the most energy efficient way of packaging beer. It tastes better and there is no BPA.

Seven breweries in Oregon are now offering beer in returnable, refillable bottles. We have always promoted this on TreeHugger; as Joel Schoening of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative tells Cassandra Profita of Earthfix, “Every time that bottle gets reused, you’re cutting the carbon footprint of that bottle in half. It’s the most sustainable choice in the beer aisle.”

Research in Ontario, Canada, shows that it is even higher than that. In fact, once a refillable system really gets going, 98 percent of the bottles get returned. It uses 93 percent less energy than making a new container. And the washing water? It takes between "47 percent and 82 percent less water than is needed to manufacture new one-way bottles for the delivery of the same amount of beverage."

This is terrific news.

beer refill rates

Lloyd Alter with info from Heather Rogers/CC BY 2.0

“We’re in a really unique position to make this work,” said the cooperative’s spokesperson, Joel Schoening. “We’re introducing a bottle we can sell to any brewery that’s interested in using that bottle.” The new refillable bottle is made mostly from recycled glass at the Owens-Illinois glass manufacturing plant in Northeast Portland. It was designed so it can be easily separated from the rest of the glass in the existing bottle deposit system, Schoening said. That will ensure those bottles get refilled instead of recycled. For consumers, he said, basically nothing has to change as long as they collect their bottle deposits.

beer bottles

Lloyd Alter/ Beer bottles in our basement/CC BY 2.0

That's not entirely true; your basement or garage can get quite crowded with bottles waiting to go back. But still, it is pretty easy.

Returnable, refillable bottles used to be the standard everywhere, but as I wrote a few years ago, the big brewers in the USA preferred cans.

[Here's] the reason that hosers north of the border are drinking their beer from bottles and Americans are drinking it from BPA lined genderbending disposable aluminum cans. Canned beer became the American standard with the completion of the interstate highway system, which let brewers build massive centralized breweries and ship the stuff all over the country by truck. But you couldn't do that with returnable bottles, as the distribution and handling of bottles was a local business. So the brewers took their huge savings from their massive, efficient beer factories and put it into advertising and price cutting, and put almost every local brewery out of business.

TreeHugger Emeritus John Laumer explained the economics:

Refilling makes economic and environmental sense when the brewery is within 100 miles of its 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.

Now local craft breweries are back with a vengeance and don't have the long distances to return the bottles for washing and refilling. In Oregon, seven breweries are on board- Double Mountain, Widmer Brothers, Buoy Beer, Gigantic, Good Life, Rock Bottom and Wild Ride, and are only doing it for some of their beers.

Matt Swihart of Double Mountain started this all on his own with Canadian bottles, telling Earthfix: “I was called literally crazy and insane for even attempting it, and fellow brewers were speculating that it wouldn’t work.” But now that it is catching on, it is a different story, saving money and carbon for everyone. “Anything we get back and clean saves us money down the road, and of course is a more responsible environmental package,” Swihart said. “Frankly it’s just the right thing to do.”

It's really a very straightforward proposition. 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.