An important part of the trash that pollutes the world comes from plastic packaging. As time has gone by packaging has gone from a small part of the world’s enterprises to a major issues that engages all sorts of people from academics trying to design new ways of doing it to engineers who design and make the containers that everything come in these days.
It wasn’t always that way. I recall as a small boy being dragged to the shops by my Mam. We had a standard tour of the shopping area. We stared at the top of the hill near the Swan at Yardley (a large pub no longer with us) where we did business with the green grocer. There we bought potatoes that went on the bottom of the bag covered with a newspaper to stop the dirt from migrating upward to the carrots, cabbage, onions ‘sprouts and various fruits, whatever was in season, and covered with a second layer of newspaper. Then we visited the grocer where on top of the vegetables went sugar and butter and eggs and whatnot with another layer of newspaper to keep that separate from the meat from the butcher who was visited last. By then we were almost home. This tour was repeated most days because the bags got heavy fast and there were no refrigerators in homes.
The point is we managed without packaging, especially plastic packaging, partly because it was not necessary but also because plastic was not yet so cheap as it is these days and certainly not ubiquitous.
The beer industry has not been immune to this trend of packaging. Years ago, the industry was made up of relatively small local breweries that sold almost all of their beer in barrels or kegs at taverns that were “within sight of the brewery smokestack.” These days, the craft brewing industry, to some extent, is recreating that scenario, but it remains true that most beer is now sold in bottles and cans that must travel many miles to reach their retail outlet. While these bottles and cans are worth recycling by relatively efficient processes and is to that extent successful, recycling is still woefully inadequate.
I read on the internet that recycling one beer bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes. This column therefore represents a recycled six-pack --- the beer for inspiration the bottles for electrification.
The US beer industry uses little or no plastic packaging which is much more difficult to recycle than bottles and cans and so is at a rather low ebb.
This is not to say that brewers have not explored plastic packaging. The PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle has been well explored but has not caught on here, partly because it may lack some desired qualities (see below) and recycling PET is complicated by the necessary inclusion of non-PET parts such as the crown and labels.
Note that none of these packaging options has the truest element of recyclability that is ready bio-degradability.
I learned recently that, since 2015, the Danish brewer Carlsberg has been experimenting with a paper bottle intended to be fully bio-degradable. The “Green Fibre Bottle” made from “sustainably source wood fibres” is still in the development stage. Currently the working models have either a PET liner or a “100% bio-based polyethylene furanoate” liner as a moisture barrier, which I guess serves to keep the main part of the bottle, made of wood chips, dry. It also makes bio-degrading hard.
You might argue that we already use paper for packaging liquid products. There are cartons of milk and orange juice for example in my refrigerator that work perfectly well so, you might ask, what is so difficult about a paper carton container for beer?
Curiously, beer puts a high demand on the package in which it is contained because of its peculiar properties and sensitivities. The package must be light-proof because the beer is sensitive to light, which causes the beer to become “skunky.” Beer bottles are brown to reduce the effect of light on beer flavor. Cans solve the light problem of course but the beer is acid and alcoholic and can attack the metal surface of the can unless it is protected with a lining material. Beer is also highly carbonated and as the temperature rises the pressure inside the can rises too. The container has to be rigid enough to resist this pressure. And finally the beer in a container must be protected from losing carbon dioxide and from picking up oxygen, which affects flavor. Containers must therefore be gas-proof. It is mainly this last quality that makes PET bottles less desirable for packaging beer than for packaging sodas and other carbonated beverages. One thing a beer bottle is not is a drinking container. Get a glass.
For these reasons, creating a fully bio-degradable package for beer is a formidable challenge that I am pleased Carlsberg is taking up. Such a container would have wide application in the food and beverage industry.
While on the subject of packaging I want to plead that it be made it more senior friendly --- not just beer or soda bottles but all packaging. I should not need the weaponry of a Swiss Army Knife to open a package and the instructions for doing so should be obvious and printed in a reasonable size of font. I realize that one of the prime objectives of packaging is protection of the product, but let’s try to balance that with easy access.
Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.