Refillable Bottles Offer Benefits to Breweries

The Business of Beer by | Dec 2014 | Issue #95

In Missoula, Mont., just off the Clark Fork River, a hulking contraption like few others in the US sits inside Bayern Brewing’s 10,000-square-foot production brewery. Bayern owner Jürgen Knöller sunk almost $400,000 into an imported German bottle washer in 2012, and then spent a year tinkering with it. Now, the machine can wash up to 100 bottles a minute, and almost 60 percent of Bayern’s beer is packaged in reused glass.

“That sounds more impressive than it is,” Knöller says. “There’s enough glass in Missoula alone that if everyone were to return it, we would have enough to cover 100 percent of our production and extra to give to another brewer.”

Today, bringing a case of empties back to your local brewery seems as antiquated as having your 2 percent delivered every morning by a whistling milkman. But surprisingly, in the ongoing debate over whether bottles or cans are the greener package for beer, one significant factor has been overlooked. By refilling glass bottles and eliminating materials from the waste stream entirely, a brewery can perform better on nearly every sustainability metric—from material and energy usage to air and water pollution.

According to a study published by Inform, Inc., a New York City-based environmental research firm, 10 trips with a refillable 1-liter glass bottle generates a smaller quantity of nine different air pollutants than a one-way bottle used once. Even the water-intensive washing process for refillable bottles requires between 47 and 82 percent less water than is needed to manufacture new one-way bottles that deliver the same amount of liquid to the consumer.

Refilling also offers other benefits to breweries, and their beer. Matt Swihart, brewer and owner of Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River, Ore., says his refillable bottle program reduces packaging costs. “Because it’s reusable, the glass is heavier and thicker,” he adds. “I get better light protection for the beer, and I love that little scuff mark [on a reused bottle]. I get nostalgic for the look.”

But if refilling bottles is such an all-around great option, why do so few American breweries do it? For one thing, keeping track of a beer bottle in a widely diffused distribution chain is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. In the absence of government mandates, brewers who want to shift to refillable packaging must rely on the intermittent and fragile cooperation of retailers, distributors and customers. This differs from countries like Germany, which passed a packaging ordinance in 1991 based on the “polluter pays” principle. It shifts responsibility for waste disposal from the municipality to the manufacturer.

In the US, large retailers like supermarket chains often refuse to collect and sort refillable bottles. And many American customers born after 1965 grew up in a country that prioritizes recycling over reusing, thanks to the promotion of one-way glass bottles by large beverage companies. “Of the glass that gets returned, about three-fourths of it is returned by people over the age of forty or fifty,” explains Knöller. “Here, [reuse] is still in its infancy.”

Infrastructural support in the US is lacking in other ways as well. While he saves up for a bottle washer like Knöller’s, Swihart packages his empties and ships them seven hours, one-way, to a cleaning facility over the Canadian border.

Still, with the rising popularity of another refillable glass container—the growler—is it so far-fetched to think that refillable bottles might soon be a more common option? “I’m never surprised when we make progress toward the greener solution,” Swihart says. “We already have mandatory recycling efforts. It’s not that much of a reach to think that we could be incentivized to reuse our glass.”

Knöller agrees: “In 25 years I think you’ll see that everyone is doing reusable bottles.”