My dad drank beer from a can just about every day, but most craft beer drinkers laugh at the lowly can, considering it a container for cheap beer only. Today, cans in the craft beer industry are gaining acceptance rapidly. As more brewers start putting better beer in cans the demand for canned craft beers seems to be increasing. The beer can is making a comeback and stands tall as a champion of environmental concerns.
This isn’t your father’s beer can we’re talking about. My father drank cheap beer, anyway.
The arguments in favor of cans are several:
- Beer is better protected in cans away from damaging light that glass may not stop,
- Cans are easier to ship and carry as they are not nearly so heavy as bottles,
- Cans can be taken to the beach, golf course or into venues that don’t allow bottles, and
- Cans are more environmentally friendly than bottles.
But are cans really better for the environment than bottles? Opinion is split and the facts confusing.
The Brookston Beer Bulletin recently published a thought provoking blog post on the topic (read it here) suggesting that bottles are really the better option. Here’s an excerpt:
So what about glass? Heylin remarks that “at least glass comes from sand, is reusable, and when thrown away goes back to sand. Aluminum? It lasts forever.” I’m assuming, though, that taking sand and turning it into glass also has environmental costs associated with it, though what they are I don’t know off the top of my head.
A very good friend of ours, Jeanette Romano, Assistant Director at Lake County (Indiana) Solid Waste Management District, thought about it and had this to say:
I love that people are thinking about the environment! Brooks’ statement “at least glass comes from sand, is reusable, and when thrown away goes back to sand”… actually, glass has to be crushed/pulverized to return to sand…not just thrown away. If it makes it to a landfill….it will remain glass. I know….I’ve mined a landfill and found old bottles still in good shape! Items in a landfill are basically mummified.
I prefer to drink my beer from a glass bottle…I don’t like beer in a can. It takes less energy to recycle glass cullet into new bottles…as long as it’s sorted by color. As far as using aluminum cans….others discuss the bisphenol A (BPA), which may affect human health, is in the thin plastic lining of aluminum cans keeping beer from contacting the metal so the beer retains its flavor. I’m all for a national bottle bill, too. I also think restaurants and bars need to move towards recycling….especially beer bottles.
I might argue with Jeanette on drinking beer from cans – I pour my beers into a glass and it doesn’t taste any different to me whether I pour it from a bottle or a can. But otherwise, Jeanette makes some great points. Overall, there are a number of factors to be considered in the cans v. bottles argument.
In the environmental defense of cans:
- Cans are more frequently recycled with more material being recovered for second uses.
- Cans are more convenient to recycle. They can be crushed to save space and aren’t tough to carry, so people are more prone to recycle them.
- Glass takes thousands of years to degrade – it doesn’t turn back into sand unless we pulverize it ourselves. By the way, it takes money, time and energy to do the pulverizing.
- Glass is more costly to transport in dollars and gasoline because it weighs a lot more than aluminum. This matters whether you are transporting the empty bottles to a brewery to be filled, or transporting the bottles filled with beer. Drinking local only helps here if the glass is also made locally.
In defense of bottles:
- Cans are lined with bisphenol A (BPA) to prevent beer from coming in contact with metal, but the bisphenol may have human health implications. The BPA lining prevents your beer from tasting like metal and is also used in soda, juice and other cans.
- Mining bauxite to make aluminum is a very land scarring effort while bottles are made from readily available sand.
- Cans require more energy to produce than bottles from raw material to finished product.
- Bottles can be recycled, we just choose to do it less often than recycling cans.
So which do we choose? Cans, or bottles? I did a little research and soul searching and came up with the following opinions.
- I hate the way the British pronounce “aluminium.” You might as well say “nucular” instead of “nuclear” if you want to drive people crazy.
- It’s true that cans are recycled more frequently and that more aluminum is recovered for reuse much more often than bottles. But doesn’t that just come down to our own laziness about handling heavier, bulkier bottles? We can and should do better as individuals with glass recycling.
- Glass is more costly to ship whether empty or full of beer. There’s not much we can do about that. A bottle is simply heavier than a can so transportation of bottles will always be more costly than the transportation of cans. I also like that I can take my own, lightweight, cans to some outdoor events and venues even when I can’t take bottles.
- Is consuming Bisphenol A (BPA) any worse for me than drinking beer itself? Its use does raise health concerns but current research is still overwhelmingly of the opinion that it is extremely safe as it is used in cans. Most health agencies believe pretty strongly that the amount of bisphenol A (BPA) that you’d consume in a lifetime of drinking from cans each day is still well below any amount considered to be toxic. Recent research does bring to light some potential hazards, particularly for pregnant women and infants and more research is needed.
- Jamaica is a large source of bauxite (aluminum) for North America and the scarred land left by mining operations but has been very successful in reclaiming the pitted areas for use in growing grass, fruits and some forests. Movie note: the exterior of Dr. No’s island lair in the James Bond film “Dr. No” was the bauxite mine at Ocho Rios not so far from Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home “Golden Eye.” Today, cruise ships frequently dock there at the “James Bond dock.”
In the end, there seem to be plenty of arguments both for and against cans. In my opinion, this issue comes down to one thing: we all need to do a better job of recycling our own bottles and cans while encouraging our friends to do the same.
Brendan I. Koerner wrote an excellent assessment of this issue last year called Wear Green, Drink Greenly: The eco-guide to responsible drinking. I stole a bunch of Brendan’s ideas. Thanks, Brendan!
BeerNews.org just posted a piece about the explosion of craft beer in cans. Read it here.