I wrote about this last week, where the focus was on the Straub Brewery, in The Extinction Of Returnable Beer Bottles, but they did mention the decision by Yuengling to discontinue offering returnable bottles. Today my old hometown newspaper growing up, the Reading Eagle, picked up the story but centered instead on Yuengling. In Returnable Bottles Leave Beer Drinkers Cold, Dick Yuengling explains the reasons for discontinuing returnables.
Yuengling said returnable bottles still make great sense ecologically. He said that at one point 60 percent of his business was in returnable bottles.
“Now, if you showed a 16-ounce returnable bottle to a 22-year-old, he wouldn’t know what the heck it was,” Yuengling joked. “I like the idea. I installed a bottle washer at our new (Pottsville) location. I was going to try to revive the returnables but the customer just doesn’t want them anymore.”
According to the Beer Institute, in 1981 about 12% of beer sold was in returnable bottles. Today it’s just under 0.3% … and dropping fast. As I opined last week, even though I understand the rationale for this, I still can’t help but lament it. It just feels like a lost opportunity in our current obsession with being green. I did a lengthy feature article for All About Beer magazine a few years ago about brewery’s green practices, and I was astounded by how much most breweries, both big and small, were doing.
It seems like going back to returnables, while undoubtedly difficult and expensive, would be a great way to keep local beer local and show the craft beer industry’s leadership in recycling and being ecological. It may be nearly impossible to ramp up by any national company, but the smaller the brewery, the more manageable it could be, giving an advantage to local brewers. Oh, well, I know it’s not going to happen, but I can still dream.
You know you’re old and curmudgeonly when you remember fondly returnable beer and soda bottles. They had a heft to them, felt heavier in your hand or carrying them to the car. That’s because they were made to last, to be used over and over again. I hadn’t really thought about it until this morning, but that was real recycling, well before the term had even been coined. But it was just practical to make things that could be re-used. It’s almost a cruel joke that as a society we’re so obsessed lately with recycling when without realizing it we were doing far more of it years ago before almost all packaging, including bottles and cans, became throwaways. If we really cared more about the environment and the world than our own selfish “convenience” then it would be easy to just return to … well, returnables.
Unfortunately, I’d say it would be almost impossible to change our collective habits at this point (yes, I’m a pessimist as well as a curmudgeon) despite the fact that many places around the world never stopped using returnable bottles. Germany is a prime example of this. All the beer bottles sold there are returnables and every brewery has huge stacks of cartons filled with bottles waiting to be cleaned and reused. Obviously, their economy hasn’t suffered and people haven’t decided to stop drinking beer because they might have to return the bottles rather than just throw them away. But I just can’t see that happening here where everything is about being fast and convenient, where it’s all about “instant” gratification. Lest you accuse me of being too self-righteous, I include myself among the lazy multitudes.
I bring this up because the Lehigh Valley [Pennsylvania] Morning Call has an interesting article about their local beer, Straub Brewery, and how Returnable beer bottles to become extinct if Straub doesn’t get back some cases. It’s not surprising that Straub is one of only two breweries who are still using returnable beer bottles — the other being Yuengling — and that both are in Pennsylvania, since the Commonwealth is the lone remaining (as far as I know) case state, meaning almost all beer is sold by the case at what are called “beer distributors.” This may have made sense in 1933, but it’s become an increasingly antiquated system as the years have rolled on.
From the article:
Straub Brewery, a 138-year-old family-owned business about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is begging customers mostly in Pennsylvania but also some in Ohio, New York and Virginia to return thousands of empty cases.
Without them, Straub says it will do as nearly every brewer has done over the years — eliminate returnable bottles from its inventory. Only one other major brewer and the nation’s oldest , D.G. Yuengling & Sons of Pottsville, still sells beer in returnable bottles. But it plans to phase out the practice by fall.
All major brewers, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, gave up on returnable bottles years ago because their costs multiplied with national distribution. About 12 percent of all U.S. beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but since 2007 the percentage has been negligible, according to the Beer Institute in Washington, D.C. In Pennsylvania, more than a quarter of all beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but that was when state liquor control laws required most beers to be sold by the case through distributors which readily accepted the returns.
So hopefully their customers will heed the call and start returning their bottles so they can be used again. I know it’s a forgone conclusion that returnable bottles will die out at some point, but the nostalgic, romantic in me (a.k.a. old man) still thinks that the returnable is an idea that should be revisited, especially with the recent increased focus on being green. It would be hard to argue that reusing bottles and packaging wouldn’t ultimately be better for the environment than our current recycling efforts. But I think Dick Yuengling summed up the situation best.
“The consumer’s been indoctrinated; we’re a throwaway society,” Yuengling said. “Everybody’s environmentally conscious, but if you put a case of returnable bottles in front of them, they say, ‘What’s that?’”
John Heylin, who runs the Nor Cal Beer Guide, has an interesting article he posted today about the untold costs of aluminum cans, entitled Why Craft Breweries Should Stop Using Cans. In it, his main argument is that while cans have benefits once they’re made, that the process of creating aluminum cans have significant costs to the environment from the mining and processing of them. I hadn’t ever thought about it from that angle, and it’s certainly worth looking into further. He concludes with this.
The bottom line is this: aluminum is in no way environmentally friendly. Sure, after it is ripped from the Earth, smelted, shipped, refined, and made into a product it is easily recyclable and very light weight, but the cost is far too great. The cost to the environment and to the people living around these areas is just too much. Clean aluminum is like the myth of clean coal, it’s a total lie.
So what about glass? Heylin remarks that “at least glass comes from sand, is reusable, and when thrown away goes back to sand. Aluminum? It lasts forever.” I’m assuming, though, that taking sand and turning it into glass also has environmental costs associated with it, though what they are I don’t know off the top of my head.
In the end, I really don’t know how to balance which does the greater harm or is gentler on the planet. It seems no matter what we choose, some harm is done. I’m certainly not willing to give up packaged beer while so many other manufactured goods, and for that matter entire industries, are doing far worse damage. I guess today I’ll stick with draft beer. But wait, isn’t that one big aluminum can? Damn. Okay, I guess I’ll search out a wooden cask. Hold up, isn’t that chopping down forests for the wood? In the Joe Jackson song Cancer, a line in the chorus is “everything gives you cancer” and at one point in the song just after singing that line, a piano riff begins and Jackson yells out, “hey, don’t play that piano.” And in a sense, I guess my point is, like the song, that everything causes some harm and choices have to be made. Every brewery is built with mined metal, industrial processing plants, smelting, iron and steel, and goodness knows what else.
Should we try to make responsible choices? Of course. But in a world where every decision has consequences, and usually bad ones, even Thomas Hobson might have trouble making a choice.
Still, it’s always good to consider and rethink our assumptions on a regular basis. Any day that makes us think is a good day, in my opinion, at least, even if it’s driving me to drink.
When I was searching yesterday for images to use for my post about pull-tabs, I was surprised by how many websites there are devoted to finding other uses for the little aluminum pull-tabs, both the old-style ones and the more modern one-piece tabs. There are so many of these and they’re so inventive I thought I’d share a few of them. This is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s a whole world of DIY, recycling and craft people who are finding amazing ways to use the discarded pull-tabs. So here we are, from head to toe:
Here’s a kid’s hat and shirt, and there are lots more at the wonderfully named Art of Tabistry.
And a colorful vest by Tiffany, posted on Craftster.
How about a dress made entirely of pull-tabs? Here’s one posted at Recyclart.
And let’s not forget the shoes, shown at This Next.
Or if you want to be covered head to knee, here’s an entire suit of pull-tab armor, from Geekologie, but the website, http://www.geekologie.com/2009/12/impressive_kid_makes_beercan_t.php is currently been hacked and is showing as Malware.
And don’t forget to accessorize with this fetching purse, also from This Next.
In case you get tired wearing all that heavy metal, here’s a pull tab chair for you to sit down and rest made by Studio G.
I can’t say I’d actually wear any of them, but they impressive nonetheless. Enjoy.
Last weekend, the family and I spent the holidays in northern California, near Gualala. As we’re inveterate art nuts, we couldn’t resist the Fine Arts Fair that was taking place at the Gualala Art Center. We found a cool black walnut bowl to compliment the Kauri bowl we picked up last year in New Zealand. Alice made a beaded necklace and we generally had a nice time looking at art among the redwoods. But perhaps the most interesting thing we stumbled upon was the “Bottles Galore” recycled art of Pamela Wheatley, who makes “usable objects from beer, wine and fruit juice bottles.”
And a tall vase using a 22 oz. beer bottle (I bought one of these, too.) They’re very inexpensive and when I remarked about that as I was paying for my purchases, Ms. Wheatley remarked that she was “just selling fun.” What a great attitude. She told us that she only uses bottles she finds or that friends give her, which she says happens more and more once they see what she’s doing with them. She lives in Manchester, California, which is a little farther north from Gualala along the Pacific coast but still about 40 miles south of Fort Bragg, where North Coast Brewing is located. She doesn’t seem to have a website, but if you want to know where she’ll be selling her wares, you could probably ask her via e-mail, which is pam4mom (@) hotmail (.) com.