In the United States, only about 3% of beer is sold in returnable bottles. North of the border in Canada, until recently, it was a very different story. When I first wrote about this a decade ago, as much as 88% of the beer was sold in returnable and refillable bottles.
Refillable bottles are much better this is for the environment: Studies have shown that using a refillable bottle uses 93% less energy than making a new container. And the washing water? It takes between "47 percent and 82 percent less water than is needed to manufacture new one-way bottles for the delivery of the same amount of beverage."
Ontario Beer Store Sustainability Report
But recently, I went into the local craft brewery, and there was not a bottle to be found. Everything was being sold in cans, and they told me they were not bottling anymore. When you go to the Brewers Retail store—now branded as “the Beer Store," operated by the consortium owned by the breweries that until recently sold all the beer in Ontario—it seems all you can buy is canned beer, except for a few big classic brands.
They blame the pandemic and claim people are not bringing back empties, but I suspect that is just a convenient excuse. The bottle seems to be disappearing from the Ontario scene.
This is, in many ways, an environmental tragedy. According to Brewers Retail stewardship reports, the returnable bottles would be reused 35 times, and it was by far the most energy and carbon-efficient system. I have always claimed it was a model for how we should be living with every product; let’s put deposits on everything and get our milk and pop the way our grandparents did, in returnable bottles.
But we live in a culture of convenience, and beer bottles are not as convenient as they used to be. The Ontario government recently allowed beer to be sold in grocery stores, and soon it will be available in corner stores, which do not want to deal with bottle returns. The real estate market is nuts and many beer stores are being redeveloped into condos, so there are fewer places to return the bottles.
I would never buy cans for all these reasons and pleaded with my kids to avoid them for health reasons; they are of the age when they can have children, and the cans are lined with a Bisphenol-A epoxy that is an endocrine disruptor.
I would rattle on about how much lower the carbon footprint of beer in bottles is compared to that of beer in cans and just got blank stares in return because nobody drank crappy mainstream stuff in bottles when you could get the cool craft stuff in cans. And the other day, I bought six cans of beer from the local Lake of Bays Brewery for the first time.
The eponymous head of a beer company hundreds of miles away in another country in another century. In 1959, he unleashed the 2-piece aluminum beer can that changed the world.
Bill Coors didn’t invent the beer can—that is usually credited to the American Can Company. They started working on steel beer cans in 1909 but faced two problems: the tendency to explode (fixed by a change in the steel and solder), and the taste of the beer, which reacted with the steel, resulting in “metal turbidity” rendering the beer discolored and undrinkable. The turbidity and taste problem was resolved through the use of enamels, waxes, and synthetic vinyl (Vinylite). None of these did a very good job, and the lining of cans remains a problem to this day.
There wasn’t much of a market for them, either. Beer was mostly sold in taverns until prohibition turned off the taps. When prohibition ended in 1933, one could buy beer, but most of the taverns were gone, so the brewers switched to returnable and refillable bottles, and people started drinking at home. American Can approached the Gottfried Krueger Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, which reluctantly agreed to try the cans, offering them for sale in 1935.
They were evidently a hit: “Compared to glass, the cans were lightweight, cheap, and easy to stack and ship. Unlike bottles, you didn't have to pay a deposit and then return the cans for a refund.” Instead, they could just be thrown away. It was convenient, but it still tasted tinny. And, they were expensive compared to returnable bottles, which dominated the take-home market.
Collectors of Canadian Brewery Advertising / CC BY-SA 4.0
Bottled beer worked because the bottles didn’t have to travel very far; they are heavy, and the round trip from brewery to beer store could get expensive if the trip were long. There had to be lots of breweries to service the keg and bottle market; in Ontario, Canada, where I live, the O’keefe brewing company had five breweries in Ottawa, Windsor, and Toronto. Even national brands were essentially local. Highways were narrow and slow, and refrigerated trucks and trailers were cooled by heavy ice or expensive dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide.)
This all changed after the Second World War, with the building of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and the refinement of the refrigerated truck and trailer (reefers) invented in 1935 by Frederick McKinley Jones. His company boomed throughout the Second World War, and Jones became recognized as the first African-American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
It wasn’t the can on its own that changed Coors and the beer world forever, but the confluence of the highways and the reefers. When you read the official history of Coors, they describe how Bill Coors had “a passion for the environment” and developed the can to solve this problem.
But Bill Coors had another problem: His beer was unpasteurized, and because of the seams on steel cans, he couldn’t get them sterile enough to keep his beer fresh. It also had to be kept cold.
Consequently, he could only supply beer to 11 states. A relative, Darren Coors, writes that Bill Coors realized “the costs savings associated with cans allowed him to compete in markets farther away from Golden, Colorado, like Chicago, so he knew it was quite a valuable container for the future of his family business.”
Coors invested millions in refining the two-piece aluminum can and brought it to market in 1959, transporting it to market in reefer trailers on the marvelous highways built by the U.S. government. The highway and the reefer changed the economics of the beer business, and soon Coors was available coast to coast.
Bill Coors didn’t patent the can but offered it for free to other brewers so that the economics of scale would drive down the cost of making and shipping cans. The economics of scale worked in the breweries too, and Coors could supply the entire country from Golden, Colorado.
Over the next few decades, all those local breweries disappeared. Our O’Keefe breweries became part of Carling-O’Keefe, which was absorbed by Molson, which merged to form Molson Coors, the largest brewer in North America. The disposable aluminum can, cheap fossil-fueled transport, and concrete highways changed the world of beer forever.
Alas, the story, and this chapter, don’t end here; it just gets worse.
From Bill Coors in 1959 to today, everyone talks about how recyclable aluminum cans are and how energy-efficient the process is. And by the standard of any other product, the recycling rate of aluminum cans is high. But still, only 50% of cans are recovered, and since the world consumes more aluminum than is recycled, only 73% of the aluminum in the average can is recycled content. The rate of recycling is also dropping every year, as cities give up on recycling programs since they lose so much money; aluminum is about the only thing of value in the recycling bin.
Meanwhile, the builders of airplanes, Teslas, and MacBooks want virgin aluminum that exactly meets their specifications. The aluminum rolling mills get more money for virgin than they do for recycled aluminum, so the cans are piling up and beer can makers can’t get enough sheet aluminum. Instead, they are importing it, much of it from Saudi Arabia where it is not made with hydropower. The director of packaging procurement for Molson-Coors told the Wall Street Journal, “We’d prefer to purchase domestic can sheet, but as of right now there is not enough to supply the domestic market.”
In the U.S., people have been drinking from single-use packaging for years, but north of the border, not many did until the pandemic hit. Now, refillables are hard to find and it is doubtful they will ever return, as the beer stores are turned into condo sites and the grocery store oligopolies take over the market.
And every step of the way, we pay a price in embodied carbon: in the mining and processing of the virgin aluminum; in shipping longer distances; and in the collecting, de-inking, melting, rolling, and extruding of new cans and then lining them with epoxies made from gender-bending bisphenol-A. All in the name of convenience, corporate concentration, and profit.
And after writing all this, I need a beer.
"Refillable Glass Bottles." Container Recycling Institute.
"Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles Executive Summary." Informinc.
"Every Can Counts: An Aluminum Beverage Can Recycling Manifesto." The Aluminum Association.
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