Canned or Bottled

Posted on January 6, 2012

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With canned beer becoming more and more popular there have been numerous articles written on the benefits of canned versus bottled. Often the debate is very black or white, with canned or bottled being better; however, it is a nuanced issue.

A few of the frequently mentioned benefits of canned beer are that you do not get spoilage caused by exposure to light1,  it is lighter and thus uses less energy for transport, aluminum cans have higher recycling rates, and it is easier to bring to the pool or on a hike. The benefits of bottles often noted are the shelf appeal, ease of recycling, lighter environmental footprint in processing,2 and consumer health.

Yes, recycling was noted as a benefit of both types of container. The recycling issue would initially seem straightforward: one is recycled more or the overall impact of recycling is better. However, as these two quotes show, statistics for rate of recycling, and benefit of recycling, seem to be as malleable as the presenter wants:

“More than half of the 100 billion cans sold in the United States in 2005 ended up incinerated or in the landfill.”2 People don’t recycle their cans.
“However, the recycling rate for glass in the US is only 28% compared to the nearly 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans.”3 But they recycle even less of their bottles.

The takeaway from both of these sources is that aluminum mining, processing, and recycling are all very resources intensive.

Regarding, the environmental impact of transportation, aluminum is indeed lighter and will use less energy to transport, but that does not mean that the overall footprint is lighter. If you are choosing between a local bottled beer and a cross-country or international canned beer, the local beer’s transportation footprint is likely to be less. Think about where the inputs for the aluminum can or glass bottle, where did they come from and how far were they shipped for processing, how many steps were required?

The health benefit of glass is based on the consumption phase as beer cans are lined with BPA. BPA is mostly a concern when the container is heated and standard exposure levels in beer cans are not hazardous.In this context, the effects of BPA are of greater concern for children and pregnant or nursing women, two groups that should not be consuming high levels of beer, if any at all.

It would be remiss to not at least mention the issue of the canned taste used as an argument against canned beer. The previously mentioned BPA lining means that no beer comes in contact with metal. The outside of the can is not lined, so some very sensitive (or psychosomatic) individuals might be affected by the smell or exterior of the can on their lips; however, beer is best enjoyed in the appropriate glass and should be decanted, especially some of the amazing beers being canned in the last few years.

So which one to chose? The answer is not straightforward and will be different for each person. Like most things, the best solution will only come through each user thinking about what is important to them and perhaps making a few tradeoffs. Personally, I focus on what is on the inside.

Notes:
From the environmental perspective, this video by Rajat Trehan is a good introduction: Canned Beer Vs Bottled Beer : Can SolidWorks Sustainability help?” 5  However, keep in mind that this Life Cycle Analysis was done for the Canadian market where they refill bottles.
 
1 Zymipedia, “Light Struck Beer” Accessed Dec 2012 http://zymipedia.com/index.php?title=Light_Struck_Beer
2 Portland Tribute, “Bottles vs. cans?”  http://www.portlandtribune.com/sustainable/story.php?story_id=119186585528594600
3 Triple Pundit, “The Great Canned vs Bottled Beer Debate 2.0: Craft Brewing Weighs”Inhttp://www.triplepundit.com/2011/05/great-canned-bottled-beer-debate-20-craft-brewing-weighs/
4 Fledgling Brewer, “Liner Notes: Is BPA in Beer Cans a Cause for Concern?” http://www.fledglingbrewer.com/rants/liner-notes-is-bpa-in-beer-cans-a-cause-for-concern/
5 CATI Tech Notes, “Canned Beer Vs Bottled Beer : Can SolidWorks Sustainability help?” by Rajat Trehan http://blog.cati.com/2011/07/canned-beer-vs-bottled-beer-can-solidworks-sustainability-help.html

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Posted in: Beer Industry