Are Cans or Bottles the Most Sustainable Packaging For Beer?

Header_BeerCanVsBeerBottles (1)_11zon


There are many ways to implement green practices, including using sustainable beer packaging.

Beer enthusiasts have changed their tune on beer cans in the last ten years. What was once the budget beer packaging is now perfectly acceptable for craft breweries, and in many cases, preferred. Beer cans have tangible benefits over bottles, such as the complete blockage of light.

But there’s another consideration when deciding between cans or bottles. Which is the more sustainable packaging? Concerns such as whether the container can be recycled easily or sourced from recyclable materials are inching forward in the minds of both packagers and consumers. Many customers are willing to pay a slight premium if they can have the peace of mind that their purchase isn’t harmful to the environment.

Labels To Peel

Regardless of which type of container a brewery uses, one thing is universal: labels should be removed before recycling. Many people aren’t aware that when they toss a used beer container into the recycling bin, the recycling center isn’t going to peel the label off either. The container may just get thrown into the regular trash to avoid contamination.

To avoid this problem, some breweries, such as House & Dragon Brewing in Colorado, have changed the labels to be easier to remove. So-called “zipper labels” have a perforation from the top to the bottom so they can be torn off in one stroke. If a company is using shrink sleeve labels for either bottles or cans, the zipper labels are a simple solution. Shrink sleeve labels are impervious to moisture and are resistant to tearing, so these easily removed labels offer the best of both worlds.

More Than the Container

Sustainable packaging is concerned with more than just the bottle vs. can debate. How those containers are delivered to the customer makes a difference, as well. Up until recently, cans would have been the less environmentally friendly choice because the vast majority of canned beverages were held together with plastic rings. In addition to resistance to biodegradation, they also posed risks to marine life. Bottles generally came in cardboard carriers and didn’t have this potential for negative environmental impact.

Technological changes have more than leveled the playing field, and cans may even have a slight edge over bottles in this respect. Biodegradable paper rings are now available and hold beer cans together well. Their carbon footprint is lower in terms of production than plastic rings and more eco-friendly after they’re discarded, too. But some breweries are now eschewing rings altogether.

More Than The Container

It was big news in the beer world a few years ago when Carlsberg announced that they would no longer be using rings to bind their beer cans together, instead opting for an adhesive that holds the beers in the traditional six-pack arrangement. To make them easier to carry, two of the cans have a soft plastic handle adhered to them.

Raw Materials

Collecting the raw materials for both cans and bottles can be harmful to the environment. In this case, bottles have an advantage over cans due to bauxite mining being more harmful than limestone mining:

  • Bottles: Bottles are made from liquefied sand, soda ash (sodium carbonate), limestone, recycled glass, and some additives. It’s the mining of limestone that’s the most harmful, possibly leading to contaminated water and habitat destruction.
  • Cans: Cans are made from bauxite, which is difficult and harsh to mine. Bauxite pits can lead to erosion, habitat loss, and water contamination.

It is possible to source 100% recycled and recyclable containers to minimize the ecological damage and offer maximum sustainable packaging. If you do use recycled containers, the environmental impact reverses. While bauxite mining takes ten times the electricity to produce a ton of aluminum vs. the same amount of glass, recycling a bottle takes 90% more energy than recycling a can. It’s because of recycling efforts that cans are consistently rated as more environmentally friendly than bottles.



Of course, transportation methods contribute to the carbon footprint of the containers, too. In this area, cans are the clear winner. Not only do they tend to take up less space, but they are also far lighter, as well. This impact is mostly felt by the brewer, with shipping costs of aluminum cans a fraction of what bottles command. But the savings extend down the line, with the finished product weighing less with cans to ease fuel use of those transportation systems and weighing less for the recycling trucks at the end of the container’s life, too.

Cost of Recycled Goods

Here’s the tricky part. Recycled goods generally do cost more. If you’re going to source 100% recycled materials, whether cans or bottles, rings, or cardboard carriers, it’s going to be more expensive. How much more expensive? It depends on where you source your materials. You can talk to your vendors about mitigating costs, such as changing the size of bulk orders or being more forgiving on shipment times.

As for whether the potential for increased costs is a dealbreaker depends on A. your company’s willingness or interest to move to sustainable packaging and B. customer expectations. If your customer base demands recycled containers, provide them, as long as they understand the cost of the beer may go up. Of course, because many sustainable materials are cheaper to ship and are becoming more readily available, you could move from heavy, expensive-to-ship bottles to light, recycled, inexpensive cans, and the cost could come out in the wash or even skew in favor of cans.

What’s the Verdict?

As for which is the more environmentally friendly and sustainable packaging — bottles or cans — the answer depends on whether the container is recycled or not. For new containers, bottles win, hands down. If you’re sourcing recycled containers, cans are far better for the planet. Which will you choose?

Labeling Recycled Aluminum Beer Cans and Bottles

Whichever you choose, remember that the container needs to capture the customer’s attention, and that includes having professional-looking labels. Pack Leader USA specializes in labeling machines for craft beer packaging, and we are ready to make your containers stand out on the shelf. Download The Brewer’s Guide to Craft Beer and Microbrew Labeling Equipment to get the advice you need for making the right labeler choice.

Form CTA