Environmental impact of beverage containers

Oenophile Jancis Robinson writes in the Weekend Financial Times (subscription required) about the environmental impact of beverage containers. While acknowledging that glass bottles are the material of choice for fine wines, she wonders if plastic, cans, or keg alternatives could be greener.

She notes the challenges of making an intelligent decision:

Today, few really understand the relative merits of different forms of packaging for wine in terms of sustainability. And this is hardly surprising, since even those whose job it is to study such things admit that the whole subject is hugely complex and definitive statistics are extremely difficult to come by.

Glass

There’s undeniable a massive carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting glass bottles. This makes it a significant factor in any beverage companies’ carbon audit. As with wine, glass is far and away the most common container used by the kombucha industry.

Recycling rates are key. Studies show that only about 50 percent of all glass containers in the UK are recycled, compared with well over 90 percent in Switzerland and Scandinavia. EPA estimates for the United States put the rate at a measly 30 percent, where three million tons are recycled and over seven million tons end up in landfills.

Indeed, recycling bottles is complicated. Bottles come in all sorts of colors which have to be separated from each other, while labels and foils have to be removed–which as any kombucha homebrewer trying to reuse commercial bottles knows, ain’t that easy.

The wine industry, Robinson notes, has seen “a flurry of new designs for wine packaging. These include a replica of a standard bottle from Frugalpac, which is made from 94 per cent recycled paperboard (and “a food-grade liner”) that can in turn be recycled.”

Frugalpack states their solution is:

  • Lighter –  at just 83g it is five times lighter than a normal glass bottle.
  • Better for the environment –  it has a carbon footprint up to six times (84%) lower than a glass bottle.
  • Easy to recycle – simply separate the liner from the paper bottle and put them in your recycling bins.
  • Uses less plastic than a plastic bottle –  up to 77% less plastic than a plastic bottle.
  • Stands out – as the Frugal Bottle is made from recycled paper, it allows for 360-degree branding across the bottle.
Frugalpac Bottles

Since the company claims their containers “can also be used for spirits such as gin, vodka, and rum” it’s a safe bet they’ll work with kombucha — should any UK brands want to adopt this Ipswich-based company as an alternative to glass or cans.

Plastic

Some brands, such as Captain Kombucha, are sold in plastic bottles. They weigh less than glass, so reduce shipping costs and the associated impact of transporting them to the shelf. The environmental impact is not so much the material itself but how to manage it after use. According to the British Plastics Federation, 77 percent of plastic drinks bottles in the UK are recycled. Again, the United States falls short–an estimated 30 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles are recycled. Unlike glass, which can be recycled many times, plastic can be recycled effectively much less often because it degrades.

Cans

Kombucha in cans is becoming popular. Kombucha Town in Bellingham, Washington, and Nunc Living Jun in the UK, only use cans. These are also lighter to ship than glass bottles, reducing the environmental impact. Aluminum is able to be recycled almost infinitely. However, like glass, the manufacturing process is heavy on energy and resources. The EPA estimates half of all beverage cans are recycled, and half end up in the landfill, Consumers might not realize kombucha’s acidity reacts with aluminum, so cans must have a BPA polymer or epoxy resin liner that some claim poses a health risk (were you to consume 8,000 cans a day!).

Kegs

Kegs are potentially the most environmentally-friendly option of all for commercial kombucha companies. Individual pours are dispensed on-demand in the quantity required — from small amounts for cocktail or mocktail mixes to a full pint. Steel kegs last for years and are sanitized and refilled. More brands are opening taprooms. Draft kombucha is an option in some bars and pubs. Selling kombucha in kegs generates the best margins. However, none of these benefits apply to the “one-way” plastic kegs used by some beverage vendors. The Campaign for Sustainable Draft is lobbying against this trend.

Homebrewed ‘booch

The clear winner in terms of environmental impact is homebrewed ‘booch. There are zero transport costs involved with moving the drink from the garage to the kitchen. It can either be dispensed directly from the continuous brew container or, as most of us do, kept in the refrigerator in refilled glass bottles, whether we remove those pesky labels or not. Cheers!

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1 Response

  1. the_editor says:

    The team at TAPPwater has published an interesting analysis of the environmental implications of glass, plastic, and aluminum packaging for beverage companies to consider.

    To enable brands to make the best choice from an environmental perspective they look at the carbon footprint, recycling, end-of-life waste, and transportation.

    They start with a simple comparison of the carbon footprint of manufacturing each container.

    Carbon Footprint

    They then see what the impact of recycling is. Noting, that “If aluminium cans are made of 100% recycled material the carbon footprint will be 96% less and thus similar to refilled glass bottles or carton. However, as only 45% of cans are recovered (in the US) the real carbon footprint is much higher.”

    Recycling

    It’s in the transportation of the beverage from brewery to consumer that glass loses out, big time. They note:

    A 500mL glass bottle weighs about 400g, but a comparable 500mL PET bottle, carton or aluminium weighs about 10g. While that might add up to a little annoyance for the consumer, that 40 to 1 weight ratio is a very big problem for manufacturers and distributors. It means more wear and tear on packaging machinery, less efficient shipping and distribution, and, as a result, higher fuel costs and emission responsibility.

    The final stage of the journey is what happens to the empty container. “It’s painfully clear today that even though plastic might have a lower carbon footprint than glass the biggest polluter is plastic. We talk about plastic pollution in our oceans and not glass or aluminum.”

    Decomposition

    They conclude with a list in order from best to worst:

    1. No container – drink tap water, draught beer, [kombucha!], sparkling water from a sodamaker, home made juice, or whatever you can pour in a glass or carafe
    2. Refillable glass bottles or plastic bottles (where available) or Carton Package (in countries with good recycling systems)
    3. Recycled aluminum cans (depending on country)
    4. Recycled or non-recycled single-use PET (in countries with good recycling systems)
    5. Single use glass bottles.

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