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Beer is Australia's most popular alcoholic beverage with 1.8 billion cans and bottles being produced at Foster's Yatala brewery each year in Queensland alone - a quarter of Australia's total production.
According to a Spanish study, packaging is the greatest single contributor to the total greenhouse gas emissions generated through the beer production cycle. It constitutes one third of beer's total environmental impact, making container choice very significant.
In Australia beer is typically purchased in glass bottles, aluminium cans and in draught form where beer is served from a stainless steel keg.
Virgin glass is made by combining sand, soda ash and limestone in a blast furnace at temperatures of over 1500ºC. Bottles can also be made with up to 100 per cent recycled glass. In practice, 40 per cent recycled glass, or cullet, is used on average.
Aluminium is the third most abundant element (after oxygen and silicon) and is refined from the ore bauxite through a very energy intensive refining and smelting process that also creates a number of greenhouse gasses including the extremely potent perfluorocarbons (PFCs).
Stainless steel is a generic term for a family of corrosion resistant alloy steels containing 10.5 per cent or more chromium and is produced in an electric arc furnace.
Energy and emissions
An Australian study by the CSIRO and the University of Sydney looked at the relative inputs for each of the raw materials used in the packaging and shows aluminium is by far the most energy demanding material.
The report shows that greenhouse emissions for aluminium are five times the national average for other products, compared to steel at three times and glass which is only 30 per cent above the average.
These figures from the report reflect the energy intensive nature of the production of aluminium, which requires 211 MJ of energy per kilogram to produce, compared to 26 MJ per kilogram for steel and 10 to 14 MJ per kilogram for glass.
So intensive is aluminium's energy requirements that 15 per cent of Australia's total energy production is used to drive the production of aluminium (for all its uses - not just beer cans).
The figures for each are improved when recycling is taken into account. All are highly recyclable and energy savings of 93 per cent are possible for recycled aluminium, 79 per cent for steel and 57 per cent for glass over virgin product.
Despite the savings through recycling, aluminium production is still the least energy efficient.
Australia has reasonably high recycling rates with approximately 71 per cent of aluminium cans, 56 per cent steel packaging and 44 per cent for glass.
Transport and storage
A Greek study found that distribution of bottled beer contributed 3.9 per cent to the fuel consumption and emissions for beer as a whole. Given Australia's size and highly centralised beer industry, the effect of distribution is likely to be much more significant in Australia.
Weight is an important factor in the environmental impact of land transport. A Danish study found that one 330 mL aluminium can weighs 14.45 grams compared to glass at 145 grams. Hence, the impact of the transport and distribution of beer in glass is going to be higher than cans.
Moreover, with a UK Government-commissioned report indicating that refrigerators in pubs resulted in between 5.6 g and 150 g of CO2 emissions per litre of beer, the cooling properties of cans, which cool quicker, sees aluminium improve slightly again.
Kegs use efficient glycol systems, which only chill the beer as it is poured from the keg, rather than storing the full keg in a refrigerated state.
Each packaging material has its advantages and this comparison shows how vital recycling is to sustainable consumption of beer.
However, when it comes to drinking beer in the pub - assuming each comes from the same brewery - kegs are a winner. A keg can easily last 20 years and each is refilled on average 22 times a year, equivalent to a saving of 58,000 individual stubbies or cans.
Multiply that by the half million kegs that Foster's alone owns in Australia and that would save the environment the production of 29 billion cans or stubbies. Even allowing for the dead transport cost of returning large, empty kegs, they come out well ahead.
There are water and energy costs associated with washing glassware, though these days bottled beer is typically served with a glass too, which puts it on a par with kegged beer.
You save even more emissions if you follow the advice in the Coopers ads and walk to the pub!