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Bottles vs Cans and Why We Don’t Fill Cans

In the past few years we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of canned craft beer.  Just in the last four years the increase in the use of the can in the craft beer context has increased almost five-fold.  In May, 2013, 285 craft brewers were canning 956 beers covering 80 styles, according to this article written by beer writer Tom Acitelli.  This volume accounted for less than 1% of the craft beer market in the US.  A more recent set of statistics compares bottles to cans in terms of volume and canning has increased to 4% of the total volume.  This is significant.  Craft canning is on the rise.  Craft brewers are increasingly preferring to package their products in cans.  Craft beer drinkers seem to be shifting their preferences to cans, but the reasons why are unclear.  Is it because cans are a better package?  More convenient?  Less expensive?  Better for the environment?

Many brewers cite most of the above:  portability, the superiority of the can in terms of rejection of light and air, ease of use, environment friendliness, recyclability and reduced costs.

Apart from perhaps the portability I have to disagree with most of the other reasons.

Portability & Ease of Use:  I’ll acknowledge that a can of beer is somewhat easier to transport to the campground or the beach, even to the local baseball diamond.  Public drinking laws aside, that may be the case, but what percentage of the craft beer drinking public consumes beer at the beach?  Ok, 5% of us three or four days a year?  The campground?  One week a year?  The local baseball diamond?  Let’s not go there with drinking beer at your kid’s baseball game.

Rejection of light and air:  Sure, aluminum is fully opaque, so there is no chance of the beer being exposed to light and the resultant reactions that cause beer to go skunky.  And can seams are usually perfectly air-tight so the ingress of oxygen is not an issue.  But many (not all) small craft canning operations fill cans atmospherically.  That is, the can is first purged of air with CO2 and then it is filled gently through a fill tube while open to the atmosphere.  The chances of oxygen ingress are pretty high during the filling process.  Sure, small craft bottling lines suffer similar problems with oxygen purging, but once the process is optimized even small inexpensive bottling lines are very consistent.  While cans keep air and light out, the filling process is quite variable in small canning operations.  Air (and oxygen) exposure during filling is quite variable, and as a result I’ve consumed some canned craft beers with clear oxidation problems.  Clearly the canning process is only as good as the people operating the canning lines.  And as for light rejection, amber glass beer bottles also block 99% or more of the UV light that causes beer to go skunky.

The environment friendliness argument is the one I will disagree with.

The first problem (albeit minor) with cans is with the interior coating.  It’s a plastic based coating applied to the aluminum sheet before it is formed into a can.  These coatings contain BPA, a chemical known to cause health issues.  Now that amount of BPA is small and probably insignificant, but it is there and you can decide on the risks.  Yes, some bottle cap liners also contain a small amount of BPA, but we’re talking about less than one square inch of surface area exposure, and contact with the beer itself is not continuous since the bottle spends most of its time upright.

Many articles that debate cans vs bottles from an environmental point of view are very poorly researched, make assumptions that are not verified, or like this one, leave out important life-cycle environmental costs altogether.

While it is true that aluminum is almost infinitely recyclable, and cans contain approximately 40% recycled content according to the David Suzuki Foundation, (in a now archived webpage) the rest is virgin aluminum.  This is where things begin to get problematic.

If we take a hypothetical situation where we are using virgin material only, glass bottles are far better environmentally. Aluminum is made from bauxite, which requires huge amounts or resources to extract, and is nearly always extracted by strip-mining.  The United States imports nearly all of its bauxite from Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica, where mining operations have left a legacy of environmental damage.

As a result of bauxite mining’s environmental toll, manufacturing a 12-ounce aluminum can is twice as energy-intensive as making a similarly sized glass bottle: 2.07 kilowatt hours of electricity for the can vs. 1.09 kilowatt hours for the bottle (slate.com article).  Extracting aluminum from bauxite is achieved in giant electric furnaces that consume huge amounts of electricity to heat the bauxite to 2054°C.  So it is done in places where electric power is abundant and cheap, but in those cheap electricity markets a lot of that electricity is generated by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

Glass, by contrast, is made from silica, a mineral that is abundant and mining of silica (sand) is a lot easier on the environment than strip-mining bauxite.

These advantages diminish a bit when you take into account that 40% of aluminum in your can is recycled, and recycled aluminum uses only 3% of the energy required to produce virgin aluminum.  Recycling glass on the other hand uses about 25% less energy than making virgin glass from silica, and glass bottles contain approximately 30% recycled content if you trust this article.  Using those mathematics and accounting for the recycled content we get 1.26 KWh to manufacture a can with 40% recycled content and 1.0 KWh to manufacture a bottle with 30% recycled content.  Energy winner: bottle.

In Canada most beer is packaged into industry standard 341 mL bottles.  These bottles are shared amongst several macro-producers like Labatt, Molson, and Sleeman among others.  These bottles are common and shared in provincial re-washing pools and can be washed and used up to 30 times.  And thanks to very well established provincial return programs (think of The Beer Store in Ontario which has recovered and reused over 75 billion beer bottles since 1927, and Enviro-Depot in Nova Scotia) the recovery rates for industry standard glass bottles are 97%.  By contrast, can recovery is about 80%.  This is an important aspect to consider because the recovered 341 mL industry standard bottles are sent to washing facilities and the aluminum cans are sent to scrap metal dealers.

In the US there are no widespread bottle recovery programs, so most beer bottles are filled in thinner, less durable bottles made of  “one-way glass” which are not designed for the rigours of rewashing.  Even if they were collected they would be crushed for recycling, and some of that crushed glass may end up in landfill.  So aluminum can programs might make sense from an American point of view.  But from a uniquely Canadian point of view the aluminum can as an environmentally friendly alternative to the bottle is simply not the case.

Sleeved Cans – The Situation Worsens:

Compounding the problem with canning, and the craft beer canning movement in particular, is that can manufacturers do not operate in short runs.  In fact the minimum can order from any can manufacturer is one tractor-trailer load or 26 pallets (or one 40 foot sea container containing 20 pallets).  The storage aspects of keeping 26 pallets for every single beer a craft brewer makes is impractical and expensive.  The solution that most craft brewers utilize is the sleeved can.

If you look on the shelves of the NSLC you’ll find that most of the cans on the shelf are wrapped in a plastic shrink sleeve that contains the artwork.  While this might seem like an elegant solution, it isn’t, really.  First, it doubles the shipping component of the can since it first gets shipped to a can-wrapping operation and then re-shipped to the craft brewers.

The sleeve can cause a number of problems with recycling.  This is because the sleeve itself is usually made of PVC which is non-recyclable in many jurisdictions. The sleeve is also nearly impossible to separate from the can, and this renders the can non-recyclable.  So the sleeved cans become a contaminant in the recycling stream, and if the level of contamination gets high enough, those sleeved cans will end up in landfill.

While they may not be as sexy as a cool tall-neck or a spiffy tall-boy can, refillable 341 mL bottles are durable, practical and reusable and that’s important to us.

Alongside the industry standard bottle we also fill 650 mL bottles.  We started out buying re-washed 650s from a bottle washing plant in Montreal, but soon realized that there was no recovery program for 650 mL bottles in Nova Scotia.  So we set out to change that situation.  Our representative association, the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia have been working with Divert Nova Scotia and a local bottle washing facility in Dartmouth to recover 650 mL bottles and have them washed and reused.  We expect this recovery to come online very soon.  In fact, we will be receiving our first test shipment of washed 650 mL bottles this week.  In the meantime they are busy washing 341 mL bottles for Nova Scotia’s craft brewers that choose to use them.

Lastly I’ll address cost.  It simply costs less to fill bottles than to fill cans.  341 mL bottles are less than a third the price of a sleeved can even when you include the label, cap and six-pack carton.  Filling standard bottles also keeps it local and saves over-the-road trucking – our cartons are made in Canada, our labels are made in Canada, the trays are made in Nova Scotia and our bottles are washed in Dartmouth.  650 mL re-washed bottles also cost less than sleeved cans.   But the environmental benefits of reusable glass bottles is undeniable, so even with price aside we choose glass bottles because we feel it is the right thing to do.


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