Director of Sustainability, The Beer Store and Brewer Distributor Ltd.
President & CEO, The Beer Store and Brewer Distributor Ltd.
Waste is a choice. That’s the fundamental idea at the heart of the circular economy. Sometimes it’s a choice made by consumers, sometimes by government, often by business. But somewhere along the way, someone decides that a linear chain from extraction to use to disposal is easier and more profitable than reusing, recycling, and conserving.
So much of our economy has been built on this linear model for so long, suggesting there’s another way we can feel new and radical. But there was a time when the circular economy was the default. A time when full milk bottles were delivered to your doorstep and empty milk bottles were taken away to be washed and refilled the next day. Over the decades, innovation and market forces replaced that system with increased single-use packaging, including plastic bags. But, in Canada, there’s one industry where this original circularity is still going strong, for over 95 years to be exact.
“The idea of the circular economy for the beer industry in Canada predates the term ‘circular economy’ itself,” says Rachel Morier, Director of Sustainability at The Beer Store, Ontario’s beer retailer, and also Chair of the BC Brewers’ Recycled Container Collection Council (BRCCC). “Collecting empty containers made business sense from the beginning. You’re not repurchasing new materials and you’re not having empty trucks on the road — or empty horse and buggies, back in the day.”
Nearly a century of sustainability
Canada’s beer bottle return system has been in existence for nearly a century. In Ontario, The Beer Store has been operating a circular system since 1927, and it has since expanded from bottle collection to other beverage alcohol containers, including aluminum cans and wine and spirit containers, including glass, Tetra Pak, and PET. In fact, The Beer Store has collected over 170 billion containers for reuse or high-end recycling since its inception. It also accepts secondary packaging to make it easier for consumers to simply return containers in the package that they’re sold in. This is similar to the BRCCC’s program in B.C., which is responsible for the management of alcohol aluminum cans, refillable glass, and related secondary packaging in the province. As a result, these programs achieve over 90 per cent return rate for refillable bottles.
What’s good for the environment can also be good for business. It’s a choice we make.
This consistency has been made possible by conscious collaboration between brewers and the retail distribution network prioritizing reverse logistics. “We’re all working together with the same common cause,” says The Beer Store President and CEO Roy Benin. “What’s good for the environment can also be good for business. It’s a choice we make.”
The beating heart of the brewers’ return network is the industry standard bottle, a single standardized design utilized by brewers across the country, which represents the largest scalable reuse solution in the country. “If you’re a brewer in Quebec and you want to try having your sales out in B.C., then another brewer in B.C. has the ability to take possession of that bottle once it’s empty,” explains Morier. “This way, the brewer doesn’t have to ship those bottles all the way back. The environmental savings from the avoided greenhouse gas emissions are significant as a result. It’s pretty cool.” Recycled aluminum also plays an important role as manufacturing aluminum from recycling materials uses only five per cent of the energy needed to make a brand new can and customers appreciate that more brewers are offering their product in aluminum cans.
Glass is a huge environmental win — when it’s reused
So long as a bottle stays within the beer industry logistics system, it can be collected, washed, and refilled many times, travelling on the return legs of product delivery runs that were happening anyway. This is incredibly potent for a material like glass, which is heavy and energy-intensive to produce, but also incredibly resilient and chemically inert. Most glass containers have a larger carbon footprint during manufacture than an equivalent plastic container, and yet the balance tips dramatically once that container is refilled just a few times. In Ontario, glass beer bottles are currently being refilled an average of 16 times before being recycled.
For this to work, however, it’s essential that these containers are returned to an authorized return location or to The Beer Store in Ontario, rather than ending up in the recycling bin or, worse, the trash. When beer bottles are collected in residential curbside recycling alongside everything from pickle jars to shampoo bottles to soup tins, they get broken and the glass gets heavily contaminated, which results in a much lower yield of recycled glass where the unusable, contaminated glass may be landfilled. And so, new initiatives in Ontario and B.C. are working to promote education to all consumers, young and old, on the real benefits to direct deposit-bearing containers to be returned. The environmental benefit over curbside recycling is enormous. The financial benefit is shared — so collect those deposits! And there are social benefits on the community level as well.
“Every month, The Beer Store has a dedicated charity that aligns with the company’s core values, and communities are welcome to host their own bottle drives as well,” says Morier. “As just one example, we’ve raised over $21 million in partnership with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada.”
Benin emphasizes that this return system, and the good it does, is a point of pride among The Beer Store’s 6,500 employees. “It’s not the most glamorous part of the job,” he acknowledges, “but we all know it makes a big difference.”
Caring about the impact of waste is a choice that Canadian brewers have made. Fully committing to the reverse logistics involved is a choice that Canadian beer retailers have made. Actually bringing those empties back to the store and ensuring they remain in the country’s oldest and strongest circular economy? That’s a choice for Canadian beer drinkers to make.
Do your part by returning all empty bottles, cans, boxes, and other packaging to your nearest return location. Visit thebeerstore.ca or envirobeerbc.ca for more information.