Over the past decade, beer enthusiasts have changed their opinion on beer cans. What was once considered a budget beer packaging option is now widely accepted and even preferred by craft breweries. Beer cans offer tangible advantages over bottles, such as effectively blocking out light.
However, when deciding between cans and bottles, there is another important consideration: which option is more sustainable in terms of packaging? Both packagers and consumers are increasingly concerned about factors like easy recyclability and the use of recyclable materials. Many customers are willing to pay a little extra knowing that their purchase is not harmful to the environment.
Labels that are Easy to Remove
Regardless of the type of container used by a brewery, one thing is clear: labels should be removed before recycling. Many people are unaware that recycling centers do not remove labels from used beer containers. Instead, to avoid contamination, these containers may be thrown into regular trash.
To address this issue, some breweries have made their labels easier to remove. “Zipper labels,” for example, have a perforation running from top to bottom, allowing them to be torn off in one stroke. This simple solution is particularly useful when using shrink sleeve labels for both bottles and cans. Shrink sleeve labels are resistant to moisture and tearing, so they provide the best of both worlds: ease of removal and durability.
More Than Just the Container
Sustainable packaging goes beyond the debate between bottles and cans. The way these containers are delivered to customers also has an impact. Previously, cans were less environmentally friendly due to the widespread use of plastic rings to hold them together. These plastic rings posed risks to marine life and took a long time to degrade. In contrast, bottles were typically carried in cardboard carriers, which had fewer negative environmental effects.
However, technological advancements have leveled the playing field, and cans might even have a slight advantage now. Biodegradable paper rings are available and provide sturdy support for beer cans. In terms of production, their carbon footprint is lower than that of plastic rings, and they are more eco-friendly when discarded. Some breweries are even eliminating rings altogether.
Collecting raw materials for both cans and bottles can harm the environment. In this regard, bottles have an advantage over cans because bauxite mining (used in aluminum can production) is more environmentally damaging than limestone mining (used in glass bottle production).
Bottles are made from liquefied sand, soda ash (sodium carbonate), limestone, recycled glass, and additives. Limestone mining is particularly harmful, as it can lead to contaminated water and habitat destruction.
Cans are made from bauxite, which is difficult and harsh to mine. Bauxite pits can cause erosion, habitat loss, and water contamination.
However, it is possible to minimize ecological damage and achieve maximum sustainability by sourcing 100% recycled and recyclable containers. When using recycled containers, the environmental impact is reversed. Although bauxite mining requires ten times more electricity to produce a ton of aluminum compared to the same amount of glass, recycling a bottle takes 90% more energy than recycling a can. Due to recycling efforts, cans are consistently rated as more environmentally friendly than bottles.
Transportation methods also contribute to the carbon footprint of containers. In this area, cans are the clear winner. They occupy less space and are lighter than bottles. These advantages not only reduce shipping costs for brewers but also decrease fuel usage in transportation systems and for recycling trucks at the end of a container’s life.
Cost of Recycled Goods
One tricky aspect is that recycled goods generally cost more. Sourcing 100% recycled materials, whether for cans or bottles, rings or cardboard carriers, can be more expensive. The extent of the additional cost depends on the source of the materials. Vendors may be approached to discuss cost reduction strategies, such as adjusting bulk order sizes or being flexible with shipment times.
Whether increased costs are a dealbreaker depends on a company’s willingness to adopt sustainable packaging and customer expectations. If customers demand recycled containers, businesses should provide them, even if it means a higher cost for the beer. As sustainable materials become more accessible and cheaper to ship, transitioning from heavy, expensive-to-ship bottles to light, recycled, inexpensive cans could result in cost neutrality or even favor cans.
What’s the Verdict?
The answer to which packaging option, bottles or cans, is more environmentally friendly and sustainable depends on whether the containers are recycled or not. For new containers, bottles are the clear winner. However, when sourcing recycled containers, cans are far better for the planet. The final choice depends on your priorities!