What Bottled Beer can teach us about Sustainability

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Sustainability can be pretty confusing. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to know what to make of it. What do recycling and overfishing have to do with each other? What are the sociological implications of the bicycle? Where does gardening overlap with politics? Because it’s not just about coal plants and solar panels, although they’re certainly part of it. It’s about how we structure our lifestyles, and weather or not we can continue them for as long as we need no.

It’s actually pretty simple. Sustainability is just about whether you can keep on going. Running a marathon at a sprint isn’t sustainable, cos you can’t keep on going. Resources are finite, so we need to use them in way that they don’t run out. That’s all “Sustainable” is. Common sense, right? So this should be fairly straightforward. But when it comes to the politics, it all becomes too hard, and we’re left with diplomatic deadlocks that take us nowhere (stop at red light). So let’s do what Australians do best, stuff the politicians, and go to the pub.

Let’s say we want a beer. We’ve got a couple of options: We could either go for a schooner of local brew, or a bottle of the imported stuff. Now it might not seem like much of a question — It’s a drink in the hand either way, who cares if it’s in a bottle or a glass? And in a way that’s really the first question — who cares? Cos it’s easy not to. But when we look at the whole picture, we see are two fundamentally different stories. One is linear, and one is circular. And the difference is way bigger than you might think.

Let’s look at the bottle first. For that bottle to be there, first the materials have to be extracted. They’ve then got to be transported to the manufacturing plant. Manufactured. Transported from the manufacturing plant to the bottling plant. Filled. Transported, filled, from the bottling plant to the shipping port. Loaded on to the ship, taken across the world, unloaded at the end. Transported from the port to the distribution center. Transported from the distribution center to the venue, taken down to the cellar. The cellar man then has to spend all night running back and forth with arms full of cases trying to keep the fridges stocked. By this stage, the beer has been bouncing around the world in its bottle for at least a good 6 months or so. Finally, the customer comes along, pays around say 8 or 9 bucks, a chunk of which obviously goes offshore to wherever the beer has come from.

But that’s not the end of it, we just got to half way. We’ve still gotta dispose of the thing. Someone has to run around collecting the bottles from the tables, and throw them in the bins. The bins fill up, and someone has to take them out to the street to be emptied. A garbage truck has to come round to pick the bins up and take them away, usually at some awfully early hour and making as much noise as, well, tipping a bin full of glass bottles onto steel. If you’re lucky, they’ll get recycled into a lower grade of glass, or if not, they’ll just end up in landfill. All that, so that a beer can be individually wrapped in a glass case for a few minutes of drinking.

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Or, we can look at the glass of something local. For this one, you gotta make a keg, which gets reused almost indefinitely. Local ingredients get brewed up right here in the city. They go from the brewery to the bar, straight into the taps. You take a nice comfortable glass, fill it up, and have a fine fresh, frothy beverage. And at the end, you collect the glass, give it a wash, and don’t throw anything away, so no trucks need to come and collect anything, because there’s no waste. It usually costs less, and all the money stays right in the city, so you boost your own economy. It’s a no brainer, right?

So, let’s look at some numbers. Australians spend about $300 million per year on imported beer, $120 million of which goes offshore. As for the glass, we drink about a billion bottles a year. Each bottle weighs about 170 grams, so that’s 170 thousand tonnes of glass we’re putting through the system — glass that has to be manufactured, transported, stored, and disposed of. Even if it is all recycled, it’s still got to go through that process. That takes 1.3 Million GJ of energy to do, which puts 114,000 tonnes of GHG in to the atmosphere. In Australia we’re charged about $80 per tonne for glass recycling, so we’re paying $14 million per year just for the privilege of throwing it away. So, with just that one simple decision — local tap over imported bottle — all of that goes away. We can save.

So, while these two things look functionally the same, they’re actually very different. One has this invisible baggage that it carries with it along the way. What we’re going to do over the series, is make that baggage visible. This bottle costs $120 million, 170,000 tonnes of glass, 114,000 tonnes of CO2, and comes with a $14 million waste bill.

So as well as looking at what we eat and drink, we need to look at how we get around, the buildings we live in, how we power our lives, and what we do with the waste at the end of it all. And most importantly, we need to seehow they’re all connected. They share similar causes, and create similar problems. We’ll compare how we do it now with how we could be doing it, and see just what kind of a difference it could make, to find out where we can get the most bang for our buck.

We’re going to help give you the information to make that decision. One of the most powerful tools we have are our choices. And if we make our choices with intent, they become stronger and can be a cause for change. And more importantly, they empower us to feel like we may be able to figure this out yet. Hope is not lost.

We might not have all the right answers, but we should have most of the right questions. Cheers.

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