Brewing is unlike any other food or beverage preparation process known to man. The recipe is simple: fermentable sugar, hops, yeast and water mixed with some of nature’s magic – and you have beer. In fact, brewing has gone hand-in-hand with nature across cultures throughout history… and even mythology.
“It is almost a universal belief that beer did come into the world so that sons and daughters of men might celebrate possessed by the spirit of the Earth mother and forget the sorrows of death with the barley cup of forgetfulness that gladdens hearts in song and rejoicing.” – Stephen Harrod Buhner in The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation
While today we know the exact biochemical mechanism that yeast uses to attenuate beer, it doesn’t diminish the gift that nature has given us. Unfortunately, the link to nature ends rather abruptly once beer has fermented. There are no effective natural vessels available for brewers to contain their beer. Instead, we have to resort to man-made containers: glass/plastic bottles or aluminum cans.
As citizens of the world as well as brewers, it is our duty to choose the most sustainable vessel for our brew. While this has long been an area of contentious debate, there is a significant amount of data that crowns aluminum cans the king of sustainability.
1. Beer Cans have a Smaller Carbon Footprint
Since 1972, the average weight of an aluminum can has decreased by ~38% – and they’ve only gotten stronger. Can makers are continually innovating their products, making more durable cans with less material. Today, aluminum cans are more than 15x lighter than equivalent-sized glass bottles. This weight differential allows brewers to package (and transport) more beer using much less material. On a larger commercial scale, this represents lower carbon emissions when shipping products.
2. Can Manufacturers are Recycling Scraps
The industry recycling rate is a measure of how much aluminum scrap from the manufacturing process is re-used to produce more cans. A recent report showed that in 2015, 56.8 billion cans were recycled from scraps corresponding to a 64.3% industry recycling rate. In other words, there is very little aluminum wasted in the manufacture of beer cans.
3. Beer Drinkers Recycle More Aluminum Cans
The rate at which consumers recycle containers is routinely recorded to track the effectiveness of different recycling programs. Fortunately, this data also gives us some insight into which containers consumers recycle the most. In 2015, the recycling rate of aluminum cans was 54.5% which is 13% – 24% higher than other beer containers. Beer drinkers are clearly recycling much more aluminum cans than glass bottles.
4. Manufacturing Recycled Beer Cans Requires 95% less Energy
When a beer can is recycled, 70% of its content is re-used in the re-manufacturing process. On top of that, the re-manufacturing process of aluminum cans uses only 5% of the energy that’s required to make a brand new can. Compare this to glass bottles, which contain only 23% recyclable content on average. Further, the energy cost of re-manufacturing glass is much higher than it is for cans. This, combined with the much higher recycling rate of metal cans make it a more sustainable choice for brewers.
5. Recycled Beer Cans Subsidize Recycling of other Materials
Recycling programs and depots accept all sorts of containers – made out of different materials. Unfortunately, not all of these materials are worth much which makes recycling them uneconomical. The high value of aluminum allows recycling depots to recycle products composed of less valuable material. Therefore, recycling of metal beer cans actually facilitates recycling of other materials as well – keeping them out of our landfills!