Bottle it up
Refillable glass bottles are making a comeback
According to the Beer Institute, Americans consume an average of 32 gallons of beer every year. (To no one’s surprise, Nevada tops the list at 44 gallons per year. California is more restrained, below the nation’s average, at 26 gallons per year.)
While this avid consumption is good for the growing beer market, the lack of an established bottle refilling program makes it exceedingly wasteful, too. But Caren McNamara, founder of Conscious Container, based in Truckee, sees a solution: bringing back the practice of reusing and refilling glass bottles.
This means collecting used glass bottles, sanitizing them and refilling them with new beer to sell. Although glass beer bottles are recyclable, processing recycled materials and creating new glass bottles is substantially less sustainable than reusing the existing ones. Refillable bottles use 82 percent less water and 97 percent less energy. Refillable bottles are still in use around the world, in Canada and in Europe, but reinstating the practice in the U.S. is more complicated.
“Refillable glass bottles never went away,” said McNamara. “[The challenge is] that we don’t have that marketplace anymore. Customers are used to buying new glass bottles, so it’s about recreating that marketplace.”
The marketplace requires several components: standardized glass bottles that are thicker and can withstand repeated use, washing machinery that can handle large loads, breweries that are willing to invest in the materials needed, and consumers who are willing to participate in the ecosystem by donating their used bottles.
McNamara spent a year doing research on refillable bottle reuse worldwide to find out why it stopped and what would need to be done to bring it back. In the U.S., the move away from glass reuse began during World War II.
“We had refillables exclusively until the war,” McNamara said. Single-use packaging was created to make it easier to ship goods to soldiers on the frontlines, and that trend soon permeated citizen life, too. By the 1950s, single-use packaging had become a staple in American homes. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the number of breweries steeply declined, from around 700 to 100 nationwide. Fewer breweries made bottle reuse a less common practice, and the infrastructure essentially collapsed. In the 1970s and 80s, five bills were introduced into the Nevada Legislature to establish a beverage container deposit and refund program, but all of them died, due to the challenges of such a program, namely, that there just weren’t enough local breweries to make it sustainable. In 2013, California passed a bill to allow brewers to refill glass growlers. The state has had glass refilling programs since the 1980s, but the practice isn’t yet widespread.
Now, there are more than 5,300 craft breweries across the United States, and this makes a nationwide program much more feasible. Many craft breweries are already focused on their communities, said McNamara, and make it a point to source ingredients locally and reduce their carbon footprints. McNamara noted that it’s also a marketing opportunity for breweries trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded market.
“We’re in a time now to innovate it a little bit,” she said.
McNamara is focusing on the beer industry to start but sees potential in other facets of the alcohol industry. Winemakers tend to be particular about their bottles, said McNamara, so it’s harder to make waves there. She hopes that showing what’s possible with beer will convince other brewers and distillers to get on board.
Raise a glass
The first step is showing the community what a refillable glass infrastructure looks like in practice. Conscious Container partnered with Great Basin Brewing Company in Reno to launch a pilot program, which is currently running. Tom Young, Great Basin’s founder and brewmaster, was excited to participate.
“I think the whole concept of Conscious Containers is noble and the way we need to go,” said Young. “The huge, huge challenge, though, is that the diversity of different bottles and distribution channels makes it really difficult to have all bottles returned, rewashed and reused.”
Because there isn’t a standardized bottle in America’s alcohol industry, Young said that companies try to distinguish themselves from competitors by designing unique bottles with different sizes and details, such as embossed logos. This means additional labor and equipment. The different bottles must be sorted manually so they are refilled with the correct product. And size differences, such as a longer-necked bottle that may only be one millimeter taller than another, make most existing washing machinery unusable, because the machines aren’t built to accommodate varying sizes.
“In Europe, in many places, they standardize the actual bottle that beer goes into,” said Young. “Every single brand of beer is in the exact same bottle.”
Currently, consumers can bring in used beer bottles of any brand to a Great Basin Brewing Company location. Once McNamara has collected enough to justify shipping costs, she’ll send them to Bayern Brewing Inc. in Missoula, Montana, which is one of the only places in the United States that has an established washing and refilling process.
Brewery buy-in is a hurdle, both McNamara and Young acknowledge.
“Reusable bottles are more costly up front for brewers,” said McNamara. “Long term, it will cost them less.” Part of McNamara’s job is crunching the numbers for brewers. “We have to show them what the average cost is of whoever buys the industry-standard bottles, and what the average price is over how many turns. That way, the upfront cost doesn’t break the bank for the brewer.”
Regardless, McNamara thinks that the overall impact outweighs the initial struggles, and businesses benefit from making an effort to be more sustainable. That’s why McNamara registered Conscious Container as a B Corporation, which refers to “benefit corporation.” B Corps are businesses that prioritize social practice.
Young is hopeful that the program will be the key to kickstarting bottle refilling throughout Nevada and California. Used beer bottles can be donated at any Great Basin Brewing Company location.
“If we can demonstrate this in a pilot that the concept works, we can focus on more diligent endeavors,” said Young. “It’s a matter of public education. Still, the most sustainable consumption of beer is going into a brewery for a glass, in-house.”