Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Cans and Bottles

Small and independent brewers in New Zealand, the US and other markets are suddenly embracing the aluminium can in a manner not completely unlike the way winemakers adopted screw caps a decade or so ago.

With wine it was pretty much all about quality. Corks were and are flawed. There may have been circumstances at play, such as improving consumer education about cork taint and maybe corks (or at least the ones being exported to the Pacific rim) were becoming less reliable. Or maybe winemakers were getting sloppy. But consumers received a clear benefit by the move to screw caps.

There were dissenters, and no doubt there still are a few. Most of that dissent was pretty flimsy and a lot of it came from the less fussy end of the market who cared more about the pop of the cork than the quality of the wine. On the other hand there were one or two reservations expressed about screw caps that had at least some scientific basis and those might still not be conclusively proven either way.

So now it's cans vs bottles. The arguments this time are a little different. There is a quality component to it, but that argument isn't nearly as one-sided as it was with screw caps. The main quality complaint with glass (light strike) simply doesn't matter if the product is handled correctly.

Broadly here they are:

  • Cans are lighter so use less energy to freight.
  • Cans are more easily recycled.
  • It's impossible for cans to let in light.

Laid out like that, it seems like a slam dunk. So what are the dissenting arguments?

  1. Bauxite mining (first stage of creating aluminium) is environmentally disastrous.
  2. Cans are lined with a plastic that includes probably carcenogenic BPA.
  3. Most aluminium cans that are collected for recycling in New Zealand are sent to Australia for recycling.

Oh, and there's the completely spurious “aesthetic” argument, which goes away as soon as a beer is poured into a glass, if not sooner.

What's needed is a thorough audit of environmental and financial costs for each option. Of course this is incredibly difficult. Some people in other geographies have had a crack (this article in Slate magazine seems a reasonable attempt) and have generally come to the conclusion that: (1) draft beer is best, (2) bottles are next best for sales to customers who are geographically close and (3) cans are better than bottles if long haul freight is involved.

What might be different in New Zealand? Well as a country with a lot of coastline you'd think that the raw ingredients for glass bottles must be pretty abundant. It looks as if most or all of our glass is created from sands collected from Parengarenga Harbour in Northland. From the lay person's point of view, it would appear that the raw material is just lying there waiting to be collected and is not in any danger of running out.

Meanwhile aluminium relies on bauxite from Australia. Here's what Lagunitas brewery have to say about bauxite mining. We bring bauxite to Tiwai Point and throw cheap electricity at it. Apparently the smelter pays one quarter what the rest of us do for their power. The Manapouri power station that generates electricity for Tiwai Point was one of the most controversial construction projects in New Zealand history on account of its impact on the environment. It seems the taxpayer also subsidises 90% of the smelter's carbon credits. When the smelter's operators threatened to close the whole operation down a few years ago, there was speculation that this would free up so much electricity generation that New Zealand would effectively be flooded with cheap electricity (although I'm told that there isn't enough capacity in our transmission network to bring that electricity to the North Island in the short term). In the end we used extra taxpayer money to persuade them to stay open until well after this year's election.

In other words, we seem to create aluminium in New Zealand as one giant, taxpayer funded work scheme with possibly huge environmental costs.

Then there's reuse and recycling. This is where aluminium should be the big winner. Except that we aren't quite as good at recycling aluminium as we are glass, but only by 48% compared to 50%. But it's the recycling process where aluminium is much better, using a fraction of the energy that went into production to be recycled. There seems to be one anomaly in the whole thing though – most of our used aluminium gets sent to Australia and recycling only contributes a tiny portion to the production at Tiwai Point.

What I don't understand here is why we went from reusing glass to recycling it. You would think that cleaning a bottle would use a fraction of the energy needed to crush or melt it then reconstitute one. Does the glass weaken over time? Did drinks producers insist on having unique bottles? Reuse lives on in the old fashioned flagon (a.k.a. growler), although that has been superceded partly by the more modest rigger, which has the same benefit of reuse.

But I really would like to know what stops us having a bottle collection network that drink makers source their bottles from. I suspect it comes down to quality, but maybe a bit of determination would solve that. It's good enough for home brewers after all. It would be interesting to see one of our local breweries experiment with crediting customers for returning bottles.

Finally there's the BPA thing. Getting into really tricky science here, so I'm not going to pretend to know what's best. Do New Zealand made cans even have the same lining as foreign ones? I know I'm not going to risk eating beer-can chicken any time soon.

There's a case for saying that the current fashion for the can needs a big injection of scepticism. Or maybe these reservations will go up in smoke in the light of some really good facts and figures. Comments welcome.


  1. Back in the day, as it were, when we were young collecting beer and soft drink bottles and getting the refund was a good source of pocket money. I notice some labels mention a refund in, I think, South Australia, and I did notice on brewery offering a refund if taken back to the brewery. And I still mourn the loss of the milk bottle!

  2. Hey Dom

    Since the closing of Rumbles, I’ve not managed to summon much excitement about wine – and with the explosion of small-scale brewers and places to drink their products, the departure of the grumpy, beardy one seems more of a distant memory than ever.

    However, I noted with interest last time I was poking around in an (admittedly NZ-centric) wine shop that every single one of the so-called “premium” labels were closed with corks. Te Mata’s Coleraine, Vinoptima, Dry River, Trinity Hill’s Homage, Destiny Bay Destinae, Church Road Tom – the lot.

    Admittedly, the vast and crushing majority of wine made and sold in NZ is meant for drinking immediately, and is therefore screwcap sealed. However, that which the winemaker has intended to be aged for a time is all cork.

    I’ve only ever been (un)lucky enough to encounter one wine which had been spoiled in the bottle. But I’m willing to take the risk – because the potential reward can be so great. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, as well as taking this subject way off topic, but I guess there’s still a part of me that wants to stick up for the cork.

    A beer-lover

  3. Michael,

    interesting comment. Back in the day when I attended a lot more wine tastings, I'm pretty sure I listened to John Buck (Te Mata) bemoan the problems created by cork and how much they wanted to move to screwcaps for everything and were held back by consumers. I think they may have compromised by splitting their output between the two closures.

    I am particularly sensitive to cork taint as a fault (like some people can detect diacetyl from 100 metres) so used to detect it a lot.

  4. You forget oxidation. Crown seals pass oxygen, cans don't (although canning can involve more oxidation at packaging depending on many factors).

    As for glass recycling anecdotally most the glass we put out in our bins goes straight to landfill.

    For me the focus is on the beer , no light, less oxidation.

  5. Kieran,

    hmmm... maybe, but oxidation can be mitigated with bottle conditioning, can't it?

    Which raises another thing - if you want to condition in the package then is canning a realistic option? I'm sure it's theoretically possible - but practical?

  6. My Barley Wine that just got a gold medal at the brewers guild awards was CANditioned and it's actually way easier to to get consistent fill heights with our machine when it's uncarbonated.

  7. Good post Dom.
    I tried to do as much research/google work as I could when I was setting up the brewery into the pros and cons of cans vs bottles but can't actually add any facts for you.
    The reasons I ultimately decided to go with cans was I think light strike is an issue and there may be ways around it but the reality is that beer sits on shelves in supermarket and bar fridges under lights for sometimes far too long.
    The other main reason for me is that cans are better for taking places that I like to drink beer, like the beach or fishing or golfing and I don't have a problem with drinking straight from the can but I hate going to the beach or the playground with my kids and seeing smashed glass on the ground. Of course I would prefer that people didn't litter at all but if they do drop a can on the ground it's not going to smash and cut my kids feet up.
    I try to stay right out of the which is greener argument as there is so much to read on both sides and so much to consider and I'm nowhere near smart enough to add it all up and come up with an answer to which is better.
    I would love to see some unbiased research into which is greener but unfortunately everything I seem to find is written by someone with an interest one way or the other.
    I'm not sure but I don't think any glass put in a recycling bin outside of Auckland gets turned into another glass bottle but they do get downcycled and used as other things.
    I'm pretty sure Green Man clean and reuse bottles or at least they used to.
    Dave Kurth

  8. On the comment on bottles going to "landfill". This could be a confusion over landbanking. Glass is landbanked in many of the dumps. I suspect a lack of reuse is due to the cost of the redistribution network and possibly health regulations. I don't know much about health regs tho' and I can't be bothered checking.

    Also on cork, my recollection is that there were significant issues with the cork oak forests in Spain leading to quality and volume problems. There seems to be quite a few papers on Scholarly in the right time period to back this up