The Demise of the Glass Bottle

October 6, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Attention beer drinkers -- the future is in your hands.

Last week an Ontario company unveiled its new PET (polyethylene terephthalate) beer bottle.

The CBC news story (http://cbc.ca/stories/2002/10/02/Consumers/plasticbeer_021002) erroneously reported Brick Brewing of Waterloo, Ontario had produced the country's first plastic bottle for beer.

Nelson beer drinkers will recall that Nelson Brewing Company (www.nelsonbrewing.com/) originally sold its beer in plastic 2-litre containers when it launched its first products in 1992. NBC quickly realized that in order to garner liquor store shelf space outside the borders of Nelson, it would have to market in the refillable long-neck glass beer bottle.

Brick, which had been developing its new bottle for more than a year, will sell its Yellow Label Lager in a four-bottle (each 473-ml or 16 oz) plastic pack.

"This isn't your typical 'you-brew' plastic beer bottle," says Jim Brickman, founder and president of Brick Brewery. "This innovative and unique wide mouth plastic beer bottle has taken years to develop and test."

Both American (Miller - www.millerbrewing.com/) and European (Heineken - www.heineken.com/) breweries have tried selling beer in plastic with little success. Marketing experts say Brick is taking a chance on the plastic bottles. Most consumers still prefer their favourite brew in glass bottles that account for 70 per cent of all domestic beer sales in Canada. The rest is sold in cans or on tap.

When Miller launched the sale of beer in its plastic bottles at American football games, drunken fans threw the bottles onto the field in such numbers that the players were endangered. So much for that experiment!

Miller is the second largest U.S. brewer while Heineken is Europe's biggest. It sort of makes sense that the big boys would try to influence a new packaging trend. Why little guy Brick Brewing wants to start a new packaging effort is more than a little puzzling.

Now a true beer buff will tell you that the brew tastes different if drunk from a plastic bottle or even an aluminum can. An ecologically inclined beer aficionado will tell you the refillable glass bottle is the environmentally sustainable container.

Which brings us to another event of last week, the release of the "British Columbia Industry Product Stewardship Business Plan 2002/2003 -- 2004/2005" (downloadable from http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/epd/epdpa/ips/review.html) by the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.

BC is recognized as a leader in developing innovative product stewardship programs that shift the responsibility of managing specific wastes from general taxpayers to industry and consumers. Over the past 12 years, the province has started a number of product stewardship initiatives for products such as scrap tires, lead-acid batteries, used motor oil, ready-to-serve beverage containers and the products that generate the greatest volume of household hazardous wastes -paint, solvents/flammable liquids, domestic pesticides, gasoline and medications.

The province has recognized that local governments should not be responsible for financing the discard of producer-generated waste. This idea began in Germany in the 1980s where the government developed a number of ambitious programs aimed at reducing the country's solid waste and passed innovative legislation requiring manufacturers to develop ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle packaging materials. A graphic image was designed to indicate which packages met the stringent, new requirements. This symbol became known as "der Grune Punkt" - the Green Dot. Germany led by example, and now consumers all across Europe look for the Green Dot, knowing that they are buying products doing minimal damage to the environment.

Check your garbage and you'll typically find that almost half of it is packaging material of some sort. When corporations take responsibility for their products and packaging at end of life, there is an incentive to make less wasteful, less toxic, less over-packaged and more durable products.

Why is this important? Some years ago, economist Robert Ayres concluded that 94 percent of the materials extracted for use in manufacturing became waste before the products were even made. And 80 percent of what’s left becomes waste within six weeks of use. For instance, the amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its weight; that of a laptop computer, close to 4,000 times its weight. Two quarts of gasoline and a thousand quarts of water are required to produce a quart of Florida orange juice. Making an automobile makes 30 tons of waste.

If municipalities are going to reduce the amount of waste flowing to their landfills, more producer responsibility programs are needed. Europe is currently developing programs for producer take back of end-of-life automobiles and electronic and telecommunications products.

The product stewardship plan released last week by the BC government realizes some of its stewardship programs need to be modified so producers (not government) finances and operates the program. The government also wants a level playing field for all producers and products and a system that is results-based, transparent and accountable.

I have no argument with proposed changes to the tire, battery, motor oil, paint, and residuals regulations being suggested in the paper. But this country does not need a different beverage container, which brings me back to the plastic beer bottle.

Doug Green is the manager of the Nelson Junior A Leafs Bottle Depot. In his 12 years on the job, he has seen a lot of beverage containers come through the city's official Encorp Pacific (www.encorpinc.com/) depot. In fact, Green says Encorp already deals with about 7,000 different brands of beverages which are currently marketed in hundreds of different styles of containers.

The depot currently refunds consumers seven different levels of refunds based on the type of container. At the back of the depot, workers separate these containers into about 20 different streams. If the government and the Beverage Container Management Board want "to identify opportunities to make the deposit-refund system more cost-effective and efficient, while maintaining high environmental standards" as the stewardship plan suggests, then a logical first step is to whittle down some of these categories. By the way, the government is looking for feedback on its business plan, so feel free to pass on your comments.

In the US, only 11 states have deposit-refund legislation. The states with deposits recycle more bottles and cans than all the other 39 states combined. Washington has no deposit legislation so that's why you start noticing beverage containers in roadside ditches as soon as you cross the Canadian border into that state. More than 114 billion aluminum, plastic and glass disposable, single-serve beverage containers are littered or wasted in the United States every year.

The Atlanta, Georgia-based GrassRoots Recycling Network (www.grrn.org) and the Container Recycling Institute (www.container-recycling.org) of Arlington, Virginia have been battling for years to get the beverage industry to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices -- such as refillable glass bottles, plastic beverage bottles with recycled plastic content, and deposits and refunds. Reports are showing that both aluminum can (see www.container-recycling.org/publications/trashedcans/TCExecSum.pdf) and PET plastic recycling rates are falling because the industry refuses to accept responsibility for its containers. If the major soft drink companies, Coke and Pepsi, were to use 25 percent recycled content in their PET soda bottles, the Container Recycling Institute estimates that they could boost the PET soda bottle recycling rate from 36 percent to 61 percent.

Refillable glass bottles, studies show, are used at least 20 times before breaking. Washing and refilling bottles also creates many more jobs than recycling or wasting containers. In addition, the glass industry is suffering a loss of business and severe economic difficulties as more and more producers switch from environmentally superior glass to resource depleting plastic packaging.

So the message to beer drinkers in Canada is clear as glass. Just say no to plastic beer bottles.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.


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