Brewing is not exactly a sustainable process. 

It requires water and energy — and a lot of each. It leaves behind waste in the form of undrinkable water and spent grains and hops. And then there’s all the packaging that goes into getting the beer from the brewery into your hand.

In recent years, the beer industry has seen an influx of new sustainable packaging options. Breweries want to make choices that are better for the environment, and consumers care, too. A 2020 McKinsey consumer survey found that 60 percent of respondents would pay more for a product with sustainable packaging such as those that are plastic free and/or biodegradable. That’s led to a range of innovations for everything from cans and labels to carriers and crates. 

Unfortunately, each one has its shortcomings.

Can vs. Bottle

While glass bottles and aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable, things like plastic labels and can carriers — both ubiquitous in the craft brewing industry — pose a growing threat. If not removed by the consumer, that colorful shrink wrap sleeve on a beer can prevents many from being recycled, further adding to beer’s waste problem.

“If an aluminum can is wrapped in plastic, the sorter doesn’t recognize that there’s an aluminum can under there. It only recognizes the plastic,” explains Marti Matsch, deputy director of Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, one of the oldest recyclers in the country. That often leads to the cans and bottles being rejected at recycling centers. “So now we have one of the most valuable materials that comes into the recycling facility — aluminum — being sent to the wrong place where it becomes a bad thing, a contaminant, instead of going to the right place and being recycled.”

Despite craft breweries’ plea for folks to peel off those labels, it doesn’t always happen. And if a plastic-wrapped can happens to make it past that initial filtering process, the labels can even catch fire during the smelting process, removing otherwise reusable aluminum from the recycling stream. 

Matsch hopes to see more breweries embrace direct-to-can digital printing, which both minimizes packaging materials and simplifies the recycling process. Yet that can be an expensive and complicated route for the smallest producers to take. “It is really, really challenging for the craft brewer. They usually really want to do the right thing, but they can’t print cans less than a million at a time,” says Matsch. “Because they’re doing small batches, they can’t store all those cans, they can’t be responsible for that inventory. They’re not big enough to do that. And so they’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Can Carriers

What about the packaging that holds a four- or six-pack together?

For a better-for-the-environment alternative, some breweries are experimenting with paperboard can carriers such as the bio-based and compostable eco rings from E6PR, which are considerably better for the environment since plastic lasts infinitely longer than the biodegradable rings. The Alchemist in Vermont is going all in on the eco rings. However, some consumers are concerned that they don’t hold up as well once you remove a can or two. Those holders require a specific press to apply to cans, adding an overhead cost on top of the cost of the rings themselves. 

Over the last decade, colorful PakTech can carriers have been widely embraced by the craft beer industry. Made from recycled hard plastic (HDPE), the can-holders are water-resistant and durable, and allow a can’s full label to be seen when on shelves. Consumers might see the recycling symbol printed on them, and think that means they can just toss them in the blue recycling bin and all will be well. That’s not the case.

“Those cannot go into curbside recycling, which is super confusing,” says Zoe Malia, the environmental sustainability coordinator at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine. “The package itself might have the recycling symbol on it, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

Despite being marketed as recyclable, some recycling facilities are unable to process PakTech carriers because of their size and shape. “They’re tricky because they’re flat. The very first thing that happens at most recycling centers is separating flat things from round things. So we’re separating paper out from containers,” says Matsch. “It’s tricky to make sure those flat plastics [like PakTechs] don’t end up in the paper.”

So instead of throwing PakTechs into your curbside recycling bin, search for a nearby location where you can recycle them — many breweries now accept them. Allagash is one of them. In 2021, the brewery launched its Recycling Co-Op, through which it collects hard-to-recycle materials from other breweries and properly recycles them.

“In the brewing industry, we’re obviously creating a lot of waste from the brewing process itself — tons and tons of spent grains, for example,” says Malia. “Luckily, we have a lot of streams for that. We are near farms, so we send that off to cows. But there’s all those other pieces of the puzzle, like grain bags, which is a really big problem for all breweries. And that doesn’t even take into account all the other pieces of packaging.”

In an effort to make a meaningful dent in the problem, the Recycling Co-Op accepts things like plastic grain bags, plastic stretch wrap (which often gets wrapped around wood pallets), the aforementioned PakTech carriers, metal caps and cages, and other items that would otherwise become trash. “By collecting and acting as a hub and a co-op, we can actually keep a lot of this out of the landfill while helping out our other neighbors,” says Malia.

What You Can Do to Help

Is there an ideal, sustainable container for beer? 

“It’s such a hard question to navigate,” says Malia. “Refillable is best, environmentally, but then you get into quality concerns with products.” A growler might be an eco-friendly choice when buying beer from your local craft brewery to drink within a few days, but most beer lovers are more adventurous and seek out styles and breweries from all over the country.

The next best option is aluminum cans — but only if they don’t have any stickers or labels that might interfere with the recycling process. So before you toss that can in your recycling bin, be sure to peel any of those off. If a glass bottle has a metal cage or cork, remove those, too, as they will impact the bottle’s recyclability. And be judicious about collecting those PakTechs until you can drop them off at a place that accepts them for recycling.

At the end of the day, it can feel like so much of the responsibility of recycling falls on consumers’ shoulders. And while it might seem like your individual actions don’t make much of a difference, a collective effort does.

Hazy IPAs

This article was made possible by Revolution Brewing, which believes in a free and independent press. Through its sponsorship of All About Beer, the brewery ensured that the creators behind this content were compensated for their work. Great beer needs great journalism and brewers and supporters like Revolution Brewing make that possible. Learn more about how you can help journalism in the beer space and All About Beer here.