Calling a New Six-Pack Ring "More Sustainable" Is Delusional

beer store ontario photo
Beer Store, Ontario, Canada

When Pablo answered the question Do New Six-Pack Rings Offer A More Sustainable Solution? I wondered how a six-pack ring of any kind had any relationship to sustainability. Then I read:

The number of craft brewers packaging in cans continues to increase as the stigma of cans being associated with mass-produced beer fades and the environmental benefits become more clear.

But in what world do cans have "environmental benefits"? In the USA, where the big brewers and bottlers switched to disposables for their own convenience, so that they could centralize production, get economies of scale and put every local brewer out of business. Then they conned Americans into picking them up at their own cost, landfilling them and then recycling them when there was no more room in the landfills. In the rest of the world, people drink from refillable bottles, and are very comfortable with it. That is the definition of "more sustainable."

graph beer recycling image
Heather Rogers, Message in a bottle

The beer and soft drink bottlers used disposables to change the whole distribution system; courtesy of the United States Government investing in the interstate highway system, they could centralize production and deliver by transport trailer. They have been hugely successful in this campaign, driving beer in returnable bottles almost off the shelf.

beer refilling around world
Heather Rogers, Message in a bottle

But why didn't this happen in the rest of the world? Perhaps because with decent beer one notices that it tastes better in bottles than in cans and they preferred local flavours, but also because they realized that deposit and return systems work well in smaller geographic areas. In many parts of the world they developed good recovery systems that worked. Inhabitat did a good story on beer return in Germany; I will describe how it works where I live in Ontario, Canada.

beer store exterior image
The Beer Store History

All of the brewers collectively own Brewers Retail, now called, logically, the Beer Store. While not as convenient as a corner store, it does give you a single location to get fresh, cold beer and return the bottles when you are done.

package type graph
The Beer Store, Responsible Stewardship Report

over 70% of the beer is sold in refillable bottles; 9% (usually imports) is sold in non-refillable bottles, which also carry a deposit, as do cans, which make up 20% of sales.

recovery rate graph

The recovery rate is 98% for returnable, refillable bottles, and 80% in cans (primarily bought for convenience). The energy savings are considerable:

The environmental benefits of these results extend well beyond less waste going to landfill. The recycling and/or refilling of beer, wine and spirit containers under the TBS and ODRP programs achieve the following additional environmental results:

* 174,292 tonnes of avoided Greenhouse Gases. Equivalent to taking 33,325 cars off the road; and,

* Energy savings of 2.9 million Gigajoules. Equivalent to 477,453 barrels of oil with a cost of $36 million.


packaging-diversion.jpg
energy savings from refilling and recycling of beer and wine packaging in Ontario. click to enlarge
scarborough suitcase image

It isn't a perfect system; we have to travel farther to get a beer, and it certainly isn't as convenient. Our "Scarborough Suitcases" are heavier than a pair of six-packs. But to call a six-pack ring "more sustainable" and suggest that cans have "environmental benefits" doesn't play in a world where every other country refills instead of recycles.

As I wrote in "Recycling is Bullshit", Americans were conned by Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Anheuser-Busch and Coors into accepting disposables in the first place. In the process, America lost the local brewery, with its own character and flavour, and the local bottler and traded it for a system based on transport trucks carting the stuff around the country.

Small craft brewers serve a smaller geographic area. Offering cans and fancy bird-safe six-pack rings isn't more sustainable when they have the option of offering returnable bottles. We have to move the needle further than that. I will give the last word to Heather Rogers, from an interview on Rabble.ca:

Recycling deals with the problem of waste after it's been created. It enables a mass production system that's reliant on wasting to continue essentially unaltered. But in the way that it allows that, the key ways, recycling is something that happens after production, but also it works at a cultural level to convince people that, wasting as much as they do, if they recycle it, everything is going to be ok. It's not. It obscures the reality of the situation.

Recycling is good to do. I recycle. But if you imagine that somehow it will address the deeper larger environmental problems that we face is bordering on delusional.


More on returnable bottles and recycling
Recycling is Bullshit; Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day
It's Time for Deposits. On Everything.
a Zero Waste Society

Follow me on Twitter! @lloydalter

Tags: Recycling

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