The Carbon Footprint of Beer
In our previous post, we walked through the different layers that go into producing, packaging, and consuming a bottle of wine and how each affect its carbon footprint. This time, let’s take a look at wine’ carbonated cousin – beer.
Beer is more complicated to evaluate than wine because of the wide variety of ingredients and packaging. For the sake of simplicity, our summary focused on a standard six pack of ale packaged in glass bottles.
New Belgium did a fairly comprehensive assessment and found that “The carbon footprint of a 6-pack of Fat Tire® Amber Ale (FT) is 3,188.8 grams of CO2 equivalents (g CO2e).” To put that into perspective, an average adult tree will absorb 59.65 grams CO2 per day. It would take a single tree 53.46 days – or almost two months – to offset the carbon emissions of a single six pack of beer.
Where do the emissions come from? We’ll start at the beginning, with upstream emissions, then work through the brewery’s practices and finish with downstream emissions and disposal.
In their assessment, New Belgium estimates that the production and transportation of their glass bottles make up about 22% of the six pack’s total carbon footprint, the largest portion excluding retail practices. Just as with wine, measuring the environmental impact of beer doesn’t start with the beer itself but with the non-consumable and consumable raw materials.
Packaging and Non-Consumable Materials
Non-consumable raw materials are the things used that won’t become the beer itself. This includes the glass bottles, paper labels, paperboard holders, cardboard cartons, steel crowns, wood pallets, adhesive, and plastic wrap. Altogether, the production of packaging materials results in around 850g CO2e.
That figure can vary based on the bottles used. Glass bottles can be produced from virgin material, recycled material, or a mixture of both. The output from virgin inputs is around 724.5g of CO2e while the output from recycled inputs is as low as 362.2g of CO2e. Using a mixture of both recycled and virgin materials gives you a carbon output somewhere in between but the actual number depends on the mix. On average, the input would be 23% recycled but some manufacturers, such as the ones used by New Belgium, use a 10% recycled input.
Once produced, the packaging needs to make its way to the brewery. Distance and mode of transportation impact the final product’s carbon footprint, as does the weight of the bottle. If we assume typical 12oz. bottles are being delivered via tractor-trailer and travel roughly 15 miles to reach the brewery, the emissions are about 1.8g CO2 per six pack. This figure increases with longer trips or air travel.
The rest of the non-consumable raw materials – paper, cardboard, steel, wood plastic, and adhesive – add up to around 163g CO2e, only a quarter of the output for glass bottle production and transportation.
We can’t talk about raw materials without considering both the packaging itself and transportation of it. Aluminum production is much more environmentally hazardous than glass but cans are lighter and more efficient to transport. According to Mother Jones, producing cans emits more but the transportation offset result in 30 percent fewer emissions. On top of that, people tend to recycle cans more often than bottles.
Consumable Raw Materials
The other half of upstream emissions comes from the beer ingredients. These include malt, hops, water, and carbon dioxide. While ingredients and growing practices aren’t a huge concern when discussing wine’s environmental impact, beer ingredients require more resources and ultimately emit more CO2. In total, emissions from the consumable materials of a 6 pack of beer add up to around 680g CO2e.
The environmental impact varies based on practices. Every level of growth for each ingredient has a potential effect on the overall carbon footprint. In general, malt and barley production and transportation accounts for nearly 20% of the carbon emissions from a 6 pack of beer. Planting, fertilizing, pesticide spraying and harvesting add up to around 25g CO2e, the majority of which comes from harvesting with machines. Getting down to a more granular level, conventional tilling emits about 10.5g CO2e while employing no-till practices cuts that in half.
For a more scientific examination, check out the Fat Tire assessment we’ve used as a reference.
Brewing beer involved a lot of heating, cooling, and moving of liquid – all of which use energy. At the brewery itself, the majority of emissions can be broken down into electricity use, natural gas use, and waste disposal.
You know that electricity use tends to vary based on the size of your venue, the equipment you use, and how you use it. The same is true for breweries. For example, New Belgium began using renewable energy which makes their electricity usage inconsequential. A typical brewery their size that does not use renewable energy emits around 250g CO2e per 6 pack. A larger brewery would have higher emissions caused by powering a bigger building.
Next, natural gas usage. According to Plant Engineering, a typical brewery uses natural gas “for boilers to produce steam for heating brew kettles and to make hot water.” Large vats of liquid need to be heated as the malted grain is broken down then chilled for a long period of fermentation. New Belgium estimates their emissions due to Natural Gas amount to 123g CO2e per six pack.
Finally, the trash and waste disposal at the brewery itself. While this doesn’t include trash from the consumed bottles, a brewery can still produce a fair amount of waste that either ends up in a landfill, recycled, or composted. Most of the materials used can be recycled – batteries, lightbulbs, kegs, paper, metal, glass, etc. The consumable materials such as the spent barley can be composted or sold as animal feed, which really cut down on the beer’s carbon footprint. Everything else winds up in a landfill.
We’ve just gone over what happens at packaging production and brewing. Next up is distribution, consumption, and disposal.
Distribution and Transportation
According to Decarbonate, over 20% of an average beer’s carbon footprint is associated with transportation. A large chunk of that percentage comes from the transportation from brewer to retail. How much depends on the location of the brewery, the beer’s final destination, and how the brewer distributes. For example, a small brewery may deliver their beer directly to pubs down the street, significantly reducing transportation emissions. On the flip side, larger breweries tend to deliver their beer via distribution centers. Even if their product is just going down the street, it could travel through a center much further away.
The Guardian estimates that a local bottled beer from a local pub has a carbon footprint of 500g CO2e while an “extensively traveled” beer has nearly double that at 900g CO2e.
Sale and Consumption
The process isn’t over when the beer reaches its intended selling point. The retail venue has to spend energy on storage and refrigeration. Decarbonate estimates that almost half of the carbon footprint of beer drinking is associated with storage and service, especially at a venue like a restaurant where the beer needs to be kept at a certain temperature for serving. New Belgium’s report estimates a total of 896.6g CO2e emitted from in-store retail practices.
Trash produced from a six pack of beer is its most obvious environmental harm. All of those raw materials came together to produce a glass bottle, a paper label, a paperboard holder, and shipping materials. Where it all ends up has a huge impact on the environment.
In 2010, the U.S. EPA reported that 250 million tons of waste was generated in the U.S., and only 34% was recycled. Of that, 13.9% consisted of foo-related waste. Only ¾ of the paper and paperboard used for packaging was recovered and less than ½ of the generated aluminum cans and bottles produced were recycled.
Different materials involved in a 6 pack of beer have different recycle rates. According to New Belgium, the cardboard carton has the highest recycle rate at 72%. Glass bottles come in closer to 31% and the paperboard carrier is only recycled about 16% of the time. Some pieces just aren’t recyclable, such as the adhesive and paper used on the label.
All in all, recycling is better than landfilling but still comes at a cost. While landfilling materials results in around 32g CO2e, recycling still produces 18g CO2e – roughly half.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Shop local…and smarter.
When putting together a beer list for your venue, keep in mind that local doesn’t necessarily mean craft and craft doesn’t necessarily mean better
There is no set rule on choosing between large, small, or local because it depends a lot on the practices of each specific brewery. Larger breweries are often able to afford fancier, more efficient equipment. A smaller brewery is probably less efficient in production but their distribution is less complex, reducing output on things like transportation. If you happen to have a large brewery in your neighborhood, choosing them can lower your overall footprint. Just make sure they don’t distribute using a distant center.
You can also look for breweries that are committed to reducing their emissions, big or small. For example, Bear Republic in Sonoma County takes multiple measures to make their business more sustainable, from reducing the amount of water they use to produce their beer to installing an EcoVolt wastewater system. Other sustainable breweries include New Belgium Brewing, who’s information we have featured in this post, Abita Brewing Co. and Brewery Vivant.
Buy in Bulk
Just like we discussed with wine, bottles are inefficient to produce. They’re also heavier, bulkier, and more fragile than kegs. Kegs, whether plastic or stainless, will keep the liquid inside protected while taking up less space. When the trucks can haul more at a time with less effort, the planet is happier.
Ditch the refrigerator
We in the US could take a hint from our neighbors across the pond. Venues around the UK have begun a shift from refrigerated storage to “cellar temperature” which has a huge impact on reducing energy consumption. Refrigerators and cold rooms consume a lot of energy. Unless a beer needs to be refrigerated for preservation, it can be left at room temperature and either served that way or dispensed through a machine that chills it inline. This also improves the beer itself. I refrigerator chills everything to one temperature but different types of beer are best served at different degrees.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
The best way to reduce environmental impact is to reduce resource use in the first place. That being said, reusing and recycling are also good options. If you have to purchase bottles or cans, look into local breweries that have a return policy. Some will take back empties to either be cleaned and reused or recycled into something else.
For an extremely comprehensive look at solid waste reduction and sustainable practices, check out this guide put together by The Brewers Association. They have another good one that discusses sustainable energy use.
Few things are more enjoyable than a cold, crisp beer on a hot summer day. That heat also serves as a reminder of the impact that our cold one can have on the planet. Environmentally conscious breweries and the venues that support them are a big leap in the right direction. Let us know what you’re doing at your venue to take care of planet Earth. Do you source from sustainable breweries? Are you phasing out bottles and cans? Is there something that we didn’t mention in this article?