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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Can America Return to Returnable Bottles?

For some reason, breweries love love love to show you their bottle lines.  When I traveled through Europe last year, brewers would often fairly yawn as they gestured to 19th century mash tuns or coolships--but put them in the bottling room, and they got school-girl giddy.  The mystery of why I never solved.  However, to bring this wandering intro to its point--in Belgium, they all used returnable bottles.  Everyone.  Remarkably, they get over 90% return rates, and the bottles survive many, many refillings.  (Look at your next bottle of Orval and see if it isn't worn at the wide spot.) 

I stowed all that in the back of my mind as one of those funny quirks that I would likely never have a chance to write about, until this, from Double Mountain:
About our bottles: in addition to being a great size and shape, our unique half-liter (16.9 oz) bottles are uniquely strong. Extra glass in the mold makes the bottles more durable and thus perfectly suited for reusing, unlike nearly all American glass on the market today. (But it’s otherwise common in Canada, Europe and pretty much every other part of the globe.) It is much, much more energy-efficient to clean and refill a returnable bottle a dozen times than it is to make (and then destroy) a dozen “one-way” bottles. We’re doing it this way because we can.

We encourage you to bring your bottles back to us so that we can put them back into service again. We’ll even pay you an extra five cents on your deposit, just for being good. Our plan is to have retailers in local markets return empties to us to keep them out of the evil glass crushers.
In Belgium, brewing lines have little laser eyes that scan every bottle before it goes into the queue and snatches out damaged or dirty ones, which I mention because, obviously, it's groovy.  I assume Double Mountain's new system has the same tech (though they don't wander into those particular weeds in explaining it.)

In any case, here's the issue.  When I asked them about returnable bottles, Belgians were never convinced it was enormously more green than our system--using a bottle once, grinding it up, melting it back into a bottle, and sending it back out--but I have a hard time seeing how.  Reusing bottles means a fair amount of water use to clean dirty bottles--but so does recycling.  And, in Double Mountain's scheme, most of the returned bottles will come from retailers in the Hood River area--perhaps eventually as far away as Portland.  Still, that's only 60 miles, which means the transportation footprint is quite small.  It seems inconceivable to me that reusing bottles isn't a greener solution than constantly buying new ones.

So let's assume this is right.  Can breweries lead the way back to reusable bottles?  It would be yet one more way in which breweries lead the way in embracing greener operations.

And kudos to Double Mountain. 

Update: In comments, Double Mountain's Matt Swihart confirms my hypothesis:

You are spot on regarding the carbon footprint. At smaller shipping distances, returnable/reusable glass is the most green packaging option (less drinking draft beer out of keg... clearly the best), recycled glass as next in line for short hauls, then when you start talking thousands of miles, cans due to the lighter weight of the package.


  1. The same thing is in the UK. Unless the scheme has been going on for quite awhile, as in Belgium, Germany and CZ and the shape and sizes of bottles are pretty much standarised (with a few exceptions), it's basically impossible (not to mention that a washing line costs a fuckton of money).

  2. Just ask how Captured By Porches how it works for them.

  3. We did some brewing for a brewery down in Chile when they were rebuilding after the earthquake.
    They sent us a reusable bottle of their beer. Those were some beefy bottles. I think there was just as much glass as beer. We canned the beer that we made for them because there was no way that they would accept the uber cheap, thin glass that we used.

  4. It would be easier if all breweries had to use the same bottles. Instead of having their branded bottles (Widmer i.e.) they could all buy clean used bottles from a recycler.

  5. When I was looking at this issue a while back, I seem to recall that refilled bottles make the most sense if they aren't going to travel too far. If an Oregon brewery is shipping bottles to California, there's zero green advantage in having them shipped back to Oregon to be refilled. Why? Carbon footprint. Cans make more sense in that scenario, honestly. They cost less to ship and are easily recyclable anywhere. Of course, we aren't likely to see Belgian beers in cans anytime soon, so the need to do something with used bottles is going to be an ongoing reality.

    Some beer fans may recall the olden days, when most soda pop was made and bottled locally. Bottles were collected, returned and refilled. It happened with some beer bottles, as well. You could easily see the wear marks on bottles that had been used may times. Why isn't this approach being used by craft breweries, who are selling more and more beer in bottles (and cans) at retail? My guess is they prefer not to deal with stinky used bottles. Green values don't enter the conversation for the most part. Should they be part of the conversation? Absolutely.

    Good post.

  6. Hey Jeff-

    You are spot on regarding the carbon footprint. At smaller shipping distances, returnable/reusable glass is the most green packaging option (less drinking draft beer out of keg... clearly the best), recycled glass as next in line for short hauls, then when you start talking thousands of miles, cans due to the lighter weight of the package. I'm very optimistic Portlanders can make refillable bottles work once again.

  7. For anyone who might not know, Matt Swihart is one of the owners and the head brewer at Double Mountain.

  8. Captured By Porches was(is?) using reusable bottles, with a $1 deposit. However, the last 3 times I purchased one of their bottled beers it was infected...

  9. the thickness of the bottle is good. Some Beer Companies let the consumers return the bottles for good.

  10. First off, Matt is a great guy, makes great beers, and I trust his call on his system. I can’t wait to see the bottling line.
    My comment is a bit long, but some readers might be interested to know why most craft brewers aren't working with used bottles. For some perspective: I worked in a smaller Bavarian brewery in 1998 (20,000 bbl/year sold in a radius of about 20 miles) where they did clean their bottles in a massive bottle washer, which sucked down tons of energy and used lots of water and chemicals. The brewery had to store new glass in addition to the used glass due to lost or broken bottles, so they dedicated a lot of space to holding the bottles on site. When I was there, the Germans were using the NRW bottle almost exclusively. That helped things a bit. The consumer would buy a reusable plastic case holding twenty 0.5 L bottles, schlepp that home, drink the beer, then schlepp the empty case back. If the retailer returned the cases properly, the brewer would have 20 of his own bottles in his own plastic case (I never worked with a female brewer there, so forgive the use of the masculine pronoun). With one bottle type, you could live with having a retailer send you the wrong case, but you still had to pay shipping to return it to the other brewery. Mark H pointed out the problem with branded glass. That was taking hold in Germany in 1998 and has become even more prevalent, which makes it harder for them as well. So I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm from Jeff’s Belgian brewing friends.
    Turning to our craft brewers, we are lacking the infrastructure of selling bottles in a reusable case, using a single bottle type (22s are the closest for this, where almost all of the them are the same bottle type) for 12 oz bottles, having space in the retailer’s storage area to hold all of the cases and bottles returning each day (Germany doesn’t have 50 to 100 brands in their equivalent of an Albertson’s, Safeway, or Fred Meyer, let alone the number of offerings from a Belmont Station), holding the distributors accountable for picking up the retailer’s empties, storing them in their warehouses, then returning them to the brewery.
    And…we brewers aren’t sitting on tons of real estate where we can store smelly, nasty bottles and cases, nor can most of us afford a bottle washer (either for capital investment, labor, or energy/water/chemical inputs). For a production brewery of Deschutes/Full Sail/Widmer's size, you are looking at a multi-million dollar investment for the machinery alone. Think of your local, very small brewer who has a mobile bottler come in once a month or so. She probably only has enough space for the bottles that are there that day (I have worked with women brewers here in the States!) and is happy to see the pallets leave as soon as possible.
    If anyone made it through my comments, you will understand why my wife says I can talk about beer for hours on end…

  11. That is so cool and is such a great idea to have bottle return depots and be able to save money and do your part for the environment. It really is a really great idea and you should keep up the great work.

  12. Glass reprocessors require separation by colour as the different colours of glass are usually chemically incompatible. RS Glass bottle