There's a great article in The Atlantic today on The Rise of the Beer Can. If you're curious about this history of beer-in-cans (and you should be), it would be worth your while to check it out.
Personally, I've always preferred a six pack of glass bottles. Currently, of course, Aluminum is all the rage (and in some ways rightly so - it's lighter, easier to recycle, easier to take outdoors, etc). But that's actually where this article caught my attention.
You see, Aluminum comes from bauxite, the primary raw material used to make our beer cans. And most of that ore comes from countries near the equator. Then there's this...
Since bauxite is found so close to the surface of the earth, it is most often strip-mined. For every two tons of bauxite, there is one ton of extremely alkaline residue (often referred to as “red mud”) produced by the refining process, hostile to growth and life. According to the January 1972 Environmental Protection Research Catalog (published by the EPA), over 65,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma have been contaminated by pits of waste water from bauxite mining; these man-made lakes are highly sulfuric, severely limiting animal life and vegetation for around 50 years. Arkansas, whose state rock is bauxite, provided about 90 percent of the U.S.’s production of bauxite during the 20th century, until largely tapping out in the early ’80s.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. consumed 9 million tons of bauxite in 2015, “nearly all of which was imported” which means we’re passing on the environmental burden onto other countries.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Regardless of what you think about the Beer vs. Glass debate, there's something a little insidious about both.
I've always pictured aluminum as relatively "clean" - you buy these shiny new cans at the store, enjoy the contents, then (hopefully) you drop them in a recycling bin when you're done. What could possibly be wrong with that?
But what this article reminds us is that there is still a tremendous environmental cost behind even our most recyclable technology. Americans consume a tremendous amount of beer (although the Chinese drink more!). And because we get most of our beer - whether in bottles or cans - at a local grocery store, that means there's a tremendous amount of raw material involved, whether silica or bauxite. I don't know if there are byproducts to making glass. But the idea that every 2 tons of bauxite yields 1 ton of alkaline "red mud" is staggering.
I grew up in Montana, where 100 years after the fact we're still cleaning rivers and flood plains contaminated by mining. I've seen the Butte Pit (once the worlds largest open pit copper mine; now a large lake whose waters are so toxic they've been know to kill migrating ducks and geese that land there). The point is, anything that's too alkaline (or too basic) makes it impossible for anything to live or grow. And the American love affair with craft beer currently generates a whole lot of that stuff in countries that are much poorer than we are.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying "boycott cans" (or "boycott bottles" either). And I certainly don't want folks to start drinking less beer.
On the contrary, this article just reminds me why I'm such a fan of a third approach - brewing for pints-on-premise consumption, rather than distribution. In other words, what if we could skip bottling -AND- canning altogether (or at least a lot more often), in favor of local beer poured in local glasses for local neighbors?
(When it comes to recycling, the bright-tank and the pint-glass are my favorites by far; you can reuse both of them THOUSANDS of times, simply by washing and sanitizing between uses!).
To make this model work, we need a lot more small breweries that are more interested in selling their beer to local patrons than trying to distribute to bars and grocery stores all over their states or regions. But as someone who's from "out West" I've been seeing that model embraced for years now, and I believe that it works.
Create great space and make great beer, and it's possible to make a living without ever needing to distribute. Again, this is nothing against the bigger approaches to brewing (I'm still happy to drink their beer, and I still pick up six packs from my local HEB). I'm just pointing out that there IS a model of brewing / distributing craft beer that actually has WAY less environmental impact than either glass or cans or kegs.
And in this day and age, I'm happy to drink to that.