Having had an enjoyable experience with canned beer recently, I was keen to see if this was a fluke. A one-off. Obviously the thing to do was to buy some more beer, right?
What I actually did was to buy some Moor beer.
That’s a good-looking lineup if ever there was one.
As well as the fun of drinking them, I was also interested in the claims – touched upon in that previous post – about the environmental benefits of cans. Do the claims, as well as the cans, really stack up? I poured myself a drink, turned on the laptop and descended the rabbit hole once more…
As a primer, The Beer Library list the following reasons why cans are better for the environment than bottles:
- They are lightweight, therefore less energy required to transport them
- They make better use of available space, therefore fewer trips to transport the same number of units
- They are easily crushed and recycled
Looking around the internet, a lot of the discussion seems to focus on issues of quality and practicality, rather than environmental concerns, so let’s lay a few of those to rest first. Because, let’s be honest, if putting your beer in a can makes it taste worse than sticking it in a bottle, then the can becomes more of a can’t and we might as well give up now.
The light side
The main advantages of cans over bottles, so I read, is that they stop light getting to the beer. Although this can be achieved by using dark glass for your bottles, cans do a better job. At the same time, cans block any extra oxygen from entering while you’re storing your beer, unlike bottles which can let a little in over time (underneath the cap). On the flip side, there seem to have been concerns over the cans imparting a metallic taste to beer. Some reports happily confirm that this has now been addressed through improvements in canning technology (yes, apparently, that is a thing). Other reports state that this is, in fact, nonsense, that cans have always been lined and that there has never been a metallic taste imparted from the aluminium. Either way, they all seem to be agreeing that – today – there is no concern over poor taste caused by the cans themselves.
So if we’re not getting the metallic taste and the cans are blocking the light and air from getting to our beer and turning it a bit funky, then there shouldn’t be an issue with quality. Just don’t drink it from the can, okay; that will affect the quality. Get it in a glass.
Are cans more robust? Yes. Drop a can on the floor and then a glass bottle. One will do much better than the other.
Of course, beer is a gentle creature and dropping it on the floor is not going to do it much good at all. But at least in a can you have a chance to put it on a shelf again and let it get back to being awesome. That glassy puddle on the floor will never be awesome again.
It might just be me (transl. please don’t let it just be me) but I don’t fully endorse the following benefits, spotted out there on the internet in the great can versus bottle debate:
Tossing a can of beer to a buddy is more fun than throwing a bottle that has the potential to become a beer bomb complete with blinding shrapnel.
After you drink a can of beer you can shoot it with your BB gun over and over again and still not have a mess to clean up.
On the face of it, the environmental credentials of cans seem to be sound. But then I spotted this comment on a discussion board and wondered whether it was true.
If you’re taking about just recycling, then cans trump bottles. However, if you’re considering the process of creating new glass vs new aluminum, then glass is more environmentally friendly.
I did a bit more digging, and it turned out to be the main root of the problem. Digging, that is.
Like all things that I have looked at since I began asking what the Right Thing to do is in any given situation, there is no straightforward answer. All we can do is to look at the two sides of the argument and to weigh up their various pros and cons. For, like most things, there are a few of each when it comes to cans.
On the plus side:
- More beer per trip: “The fact that distributors are able to ship more cans at a time than bottles can cut the amount of carbon emissions associated with transporting beer.” (Canned Mythology)
- Better chance of it being recycled: “The recycling rate for glass in the US is only 28% compared to the nearly 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans.” (triplepundit.com). Although, in the UK it is closer to 50% for glass (recyclenow.com) and 57% for cans (mpma.org.uk).
- Better chance of it being recycled into a beer can: “Beer bottles contain only 20-30% recycled glass in comparison to the average beer can that is made of 40% recycled aluminum.” (triplepundit.com)
On the negative side:
- Mining: “Aluminum is made from bauxite, which requires substantial, land-scarring effort to extract from the Earth; the United States imports virtually all of its bauxite from the likes of Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica, where mining operations have caused environmental controversy. Glass, by contrast, is made from the more easily accessible silica.” (slate.com)
- The impact is small: “[A brewer] questioned the emphasis on canning as an environmental fix when few breweries try to curb the effects of that most prevalent of greenhouse gases, which is that most copious byproduct of fermentation: carbon dioxide.” (Canned Mythology)
According to triplepundit.com, “recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and produces 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing new aluminum.” Therefore, it would seem sensible to look for cans that have been made from recycled cans. That would be one way of avoiding contributing as much to the mining of more bauxite.
Where is it coming from?
Up until this point, I have been thinking about the bottle versus can debate in terms of the same beer, ie obtaining the same beer from the same brewery, but in a can not a bottle. The environmental impacts may shift once again if we think about a can from the other end of the country compared with a bottle from the brewery down the road.
Even if that bottle carries a higher recycling “cost” (it seems that it is harder to recycle glass than aluminium, with a smaller market for the end result), overall it might well be offset by the reduced emissions compared with trucking a more easily recycled can from the other end of the country. I told you it wasn’t easy, didn’t I?
The “best” option
Refillable containers that you can top up from your local brewery are possibly the best option. For example, my local brewery offers growlers that you can fill at the brewery itself or at a nearby pub. The brewery is on Mrs RB’s way home (so no additional transport costs) and the growler gets used again and again and again. All it needs is a quick rinse and it is ready to go again, which has to have a fairly negligible environmental cost.
But is that the “best” option overall? While I am a big fan of our local brewery, I would be sad to see a situation where I wasn’t able to try a beer from further afield. Accepting that buying beer from up country will have an environmental cost, the next best thing is to weigh up the various pros and cons of cans versus bottles and to make a call from there. If truth be told, I am not yet convinced of either’s superiority from an environmental point-of-view. But whether I opt for a bottle or a can, the one thing that absolutely must be done is for it to end up in the recycling box by the front door. That way, it can become a new bottle or a new can and it will then be able to brighten someone else’s day when it has been refilled with beer once more.
Or, to bring it full circle, once Moor.