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Packaging: The Return of Returnable Beer Bottles?

In Washington state, a new program is helping breweries and other beverage producers give reusable glass bottles a fresh look. Nationally, the cost and supply of new glass—and glaring weaknesses in recycling programs—could make such programs increasingly feasible.

Kate Bernot Jan 2, 2024 - 11 min read

Packaging: The Return of Returnable Beer Bottles? Primary Image

At Seattle’s Fair Isle, bottles such as these are now returnable and reusable. Photo: Courtesy Fair Isle Brewing.

Even children learn that when it comes to the “three Rs,” reuse comes before recycle. It’s why kegs are the beer package with the lowest contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet glass can also be a lower-waste, lower-emissions package—but only if that glass is reused. Behind kegs, returnable glass generates the second-lowest greenhouse-gas emissions among mainstream beverage packages, at nine kilograms of CO2 per hectoliter of beer packaged, according to a 2022 report by Rabobank. (Compare that to an estimated 23 to 31 kilograms per hectoliter for aluminum cans.)

Citing research by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Rabobank report notes that switching to returnable glass bottles instead of one-way glass can reduce that packaging’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent. Despite that potential, neither the U.S. beverage industry nor local governments have invested in the systems and infrastructure that would make glass reuse possible.

Today, however, a few factors are converging to finally make glass reuse a viable option—at least for some craft-beverage companies:

  • The first push toward reusable glass comes from rising packaging costs, which discourage beverage makers from purchasing new glass.
  • The second is the launch of a first-of-its-kind program in Washington state that enables wineries, distilleries, and breweries to package in reusable glass bottles without paying a premium for those bottles.
  • The third factor is big-picture: The world’s supply of sand—more specifically, silica sand, the type of sand that can be turned into glass—is finite and dwindling. Because it’s also used to make concrete and computer chips, silica sand is being extracted from the earth much, much faster than is sustainable, and that will only result in higher prices for glass in the future.

“If we don’t reuse materials, then packaging costs go up,” says John Morrison, cofounder and CEO of ZEWA, the new glass-reuse company in Washington. “So, if we can make reusable glass dead-stupid simple for people, … it’s a no-brainer.”

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