The average beer bottle is refilled 15 times in its environmentally-friendly life cycle - Toronto Star

June 28, 2013
Isabel Teotonio, Toronto Star

It’s Friday evening and a warm breeze blows through Gary Grant’s backyard as he fires up the barbecue.

While the savoury scent of grilled pork chops wafts — “cooked slowly and cooked perfectly” — he tears into a six-pack with his calloused hands, scarred from nearly four decades of installing floors, and twists the cap off an ice cold bottle of Molson Canadian.

He relishes that first swig.

“It tastes like water after a hot, long day,” says the 54-year-old Brampton resident. “You’ve been on the road all day and you get home to have that first gulp — it quenches your thirst.”

Grant finishes his beer and returns the empty to the case.

And so the cycle begins.

This bottle will be returned, sorted, washed, sanitized, inspected, refilled, X-rayed, pasteurized, labelled, packaged and put back on the shelf within three days. Barring an unforeseen disaster, such as breakage, the beer bottle will be refilled 15 times before it’s recycled into new glass.

The Beer Store’s deposit return program is considered the most successful in North America because of its high recovery rate. Environmentalists applaud the program for keeping beverage containers out of landfills and blue boxes, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing energy expenditure and saving taxpayers millions.

Canada Day weekend is one of the biggest beer-selling weekends of the year — an ideal time to track the journey of a beer bottle as it moves from one consumer to another. This is the story of how Gary Grant’s Friday night thirst-quencher becomes Chinese tourist Ming De’s Tuesday night drink with dinner.

Gary Grant arrives at The Beer Store, near Dixie Rd. and Queen St. E. in Brampton, on Saturday morning with five cases of empties, next to his fishing rods in the trunk of his beige Toyota Corolla.

He joins the lineup at the recycling station and hoists the rattling cases off a trolley onto a conveyor roll that is already lined with black bins filled with beer cans, plastic liquor containers and glass wine bottles.

Grant, a longtime beer drinker, has always returned his empties. It’s a no-brainer, he says. “I have two young kids so I want to keep the environment good.”

The Beer Store, co-owned by Labatt Brewing Company, Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries, will take back anything it sells at its 447 Ontario locations: bottles, caps, cans, cases, kegs, plastic bags. About 94 per cent of all containers and 99 per cent of all refillable beer bottles are returned.

The Beer Store’s deposit return system began in 1927. Since then, it has recovered 75 billion beer bottles.

In 2007, the province introduced the Ontario Deposit Return Program and The Beer Store expanded its recycling program to accept containers purchased at the LCBO and wineries for a refundable deposit of 10 or 20 cents.

That first year, 63 per cent of containers were recovered. By 2012, the return rate was 81 per cent.

The fact that all of these beverage containers aren’t being created from scratch is a boon to the environment — and wallet.

According to a TBS report, in 2011 both The Beer Store and the Ontario Deposit Return Program diverted 454,478 tonnes of beverage alcohol containers from Ontario landfills, saving 2.9 million gigajoules of energy, and avoiding 205,090 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of removing 40,210 cars off the road for a year.

Keeping those containers out of garbage bins and blue boxes saved Ontario taxpayers about $40 million in waste management costs.

The return program is clearly working. People return empties by any means possible — pulling wagons, hauling potato sacks and pushing green bins filled to the brim. They scour ditches, garbage cans and blue boxes looking for empties to exchange for some extra money.

The store manager Lance Burrows has seen people ride in carrying bags filled with about 500 cans.

“They’ll show up on bikes and I’m surprised at how much they can carry,” he says.

Burrows remembers one fellow who gathered empty beer cans at hockey arenas for a year, netting enough money to fly his family of four to Disney World.
“The biggest (return of) empties I’ve seen in 20 years was $600 from one person ... It was a great big cube van full of beer bottles.”

Grant’s return of 57 bottles earns $5.70 — money he puts toward a new case of beer.

Grant’s empties from the night before roll along the conveyor and disappear into the back. There, employee Jaclyn Greco, outfitted with gloves, glasses and ear protection, is sorting through an endless flow of cases and black bins. The Beer Store takes back anything that is recyclable — mason jars, glass jam jars, plastic water bottles, aluminum pop cans — but only refunds alcohol beverage containers.

A trained eye, such as Greco’s — she’s worked at The Beer Store for seven years — can guess the age of a beer bottle from the scuff marks, including a white ring around the base that forms over time. They’re kind of like age lines.

Decades ago, brewers used a variety of bottles, but sorting became such a headache an industry standard bottle was introduced. Today, the majority of beer sold is in the standard brown long neck. This makes Greco’s job easier because regardless of brand, she can stack all the standard bottles together, to be picked up by either Molson Coors or Labatt Breweries for wash and refill.

Non-standard refillable bottles, such as Moosehead, Sleeman and Steam Whistle, are separated and returned to the original breweries for reuse. Meanwhile, imported bottles, such as Corona and Heineken, are single-use and end up being recycled.

Refillables are eco-friendly and cost efficient for the beer producer and consumer. According to The Beer Store, 90 per cent less energy is needed over the life cycle of a refillable, compared with single-use containers that are recycled. And, in 2011, Ontario brewers using refillable bottles sold 1.15 billion bottles, but only purchased 92 million bottles.

Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says The Beer Store’s deposit return programs and refillable beer bottles set the gold standard. Having producers be responsible for their packaging and material “is the best thing for the environment and the best thing for Ontarians.”

“I wish the pop companies and the other beverage companies that end up creating packaging and product waste that ends up at our home, would do what The Beer Store did,” says Hartmann. “The environment would be much better off and our pocket books would be much better off.”

Hartmann longs for the days when North American soft drink companies used refillable bottles. Despite high recovery rates, these companies started to use aluminum cans and plastic bottles in the mid-1980s. The reason? Glass was more expensive and heavier to transport, some retailers grew frustrated taking back empties, and the companies moved away from locally-based bottlers, preferring to centralize production and distribution.

The arrival of the blue box program coincided with the switch from refillable glass to aluminum and plastic. And in the process, the cost of collecting the new containers and managing that system was no longer solely borne by the soft drink manufacturers and retailers. It became a municipal taxpayer responsibility. Today, taxpayers pay 100 per cent of the cost for garbage disposal and a minimum of 50 per cent toward the blue bin program — the remainder is paid by industry.

By comparison, The Beer Store recovery program is industry-driven and funded. Because The Beer Store system keeps a substantial amount of waste from the landfill, it helps municipal taxpayers, says Jeff Newton, president of Canada’s National Brewers.

“You keep your taxes down and you help benefit the environment at the same time,” he says. “The fact that those costs are kept down, helps manage the price you pay for the product.”

Although The Beer Store does not disclose revenue, it says the return program is profitable. Brewers and the LCBO pay a service fee for the sorting of their bottles, and all the collected materials are sold to a recycling plant — everything, except refillable beer bottles, is recycled. By separating everything it collects, The Beer Store reduces cross-contamination between glass, plastic and paper, which makes it more valuable.

Back in the sorting area of the store, Greco separates plastic liquor bottles, aluminum beer cans, cardboard boxes and wine bottles. Plastic will be made into polar fleece and trunk liners; aluminum is remade into aluminum cans; cardboard is recycled into paper-based packaging. Clear glass is made into new bottles, while green and brown glass is recycled to make new bottles and fibreglass insulation. (A lot of the glass collected in blue bins, ends up being used as asphalt filler because it’s been contaminated.)

“It’s smelly and stinky sometimes,” says Greco, her voice booming to compete with the sound of smashing glass. “But, a big plus with us is that we have the facilities to accommodate all this recycling.”

Most beer bottles are returned empty. But others come back with whatever it is that can be squeezed trough the quarter-sized opening: cigarette butts, beer caps, condoms, bandages, tampons, mice. Some bottles are caked in dirt, likely found in a ditch. Others are smeared in concrete, likely consumed on a construction site.

Greco puts Grant’s six-pack on a pallet. It becomes part of a towering stack of empties.

Around 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning, Molson Coors driver Walter Paspalovski backs his 53-foot long trailer into the loading dock of the Brampton beer store. He’s making a delivery and picking up about 16,000 empties returned over the weekend, including Grant’s bottle.

By 11 a.m., the trailer — covered with a giant pint of Molson Canadian set against a Prairie barley field beneath the caption Made From Canada — is trundling down Highway 410, toward the Molson Coors Toronto Brewery.

The brewer’s facility — the largest Molson Coors plant in Canada — is near Toronto International Pearson Airport and includes a 700,000 square-foot production plant, equivalent to 12 NFL football fields.

It’s a mechanical maze of conveyor belts, filled with clinking bottles, conjuring up memories of Shotz Brewery in the 1970s TV show Laverne & Shirley. But unlike Shotz Brewery, which bustled with workers, this one seems almost devoid of people as machines have replaced much manual labour. Now there are about 800 employees at the plant.

Staffing isn’t the only change. The days of swilling suds on the job ended in the 1990s. And well-stocked beer fridges in staff rooms have vanished. There used to be an employee whose sole job was to keep them replenished.

Today there are four production lines that produce 3.2 million cans and bottles on an average day. For nine months of the year, this is a 24-7 operation. During the winter months, production slows to six days a week.

The entire process — from unloading empties to reloading filled bottles — takes two and a half hours. By mid-afternoon that day, Grant’s bottle will be ready for purchase.

The empties rumble along a conveyor where a saw slices the bottom off the cases and a worker removes the cardboard — everything gets recycled. On occasion, wallets, keys and jewelry are found in the cases. Lining the bottom of Grant’s six-pack are a few discarded bottle caps.

Grant’s Molson Canadian, flanked by Laker Lager and Rickard’s Shandy bottles, heads into a custom-made 60-bottle-washer, so called because 60 bottles enter the machine at once, but in reality it washes 49,000 bottles at any given time.

Pressurized jets squirt freshwater and a sanitizing solution into the upside down bottles, removing much of the guck people discard inside. So many cigarette butts get flushed out during this process that staff call it The Butt Washer.

Glistening brown bottles emerge on a conveyor belt, naked without labels. At this point Grant’s bottle is identical to the rest, making it impossible to track, so the Star follows the production line.

The clattering stream of flowing brown glass align at the Electronic Bottle Inspection, where a camera photographs every bottle and a strobe light looks for any imperfection: a chipped mouth, worn-out screw threads or a cap lodged inside the bottle. Any faulty bottle — about 1 per cent of the total — is rejected and removed, disappearing down a chute.

Bottles roll on to a large circular filler that fills 1,000 bottles per minute. On this day, Molson Canadian is on tap, pumped up from an 1,800 hectolitre tank below. Each bottle is then X-rayed to ensure it contains 341mL before being capped.

Finally bottles are pasteurized — heated to 62 C, then cooled to 3 C. By this point, older bottles, weakened by wear and tear, will have exploded from the stress.

All that’s left is for the bottles to be labelled and packed.

Grant’s bottle, originally in a six-pack, is now in a case of 28. One of the many cases from the production line rolls down the conveyor belt and is stacked on a pallet. At 3:15 p.m. on Monday — about four hours after Grant’s bottle left the Brampton store — a case arrives at The Beer Store on Wilson Ave W., near Bathurst St. in North York.

It’s late on Tuesday afternoon, Ming De arrives at the Wilson Ave. outlet with an old wooden pop crate containing empty beer bottles.

De, 61, a retired automobile engineer is visiting from China for three months and staying with his brother Ming Yao in Toronto.

In his hometown of Jinan, stores don’t collect refillable beer bottles, he says. Instead, they are sold to people who go door-to-door collecting recyclables.

Home pickup may sound convenient but there is no fixed price. He prefers this system, because you know exactly how much you’ll be refunded, says De, speaking in Mandarin as his brother translates.

De and Yao are picking up beer to have with dinner: fish and pork. But, they admit they’ll likely crack open a couple of cold ones in the backyard while waiting for dinner to cook.

De enjoys the taste of Canadian beer although, “It’s a small bottle ... In China, the beer bottle is 650 mL.”

So the brothers opt for a 28-pack of Molson Canadian.

It rolls out along the conveyor and De picks it up.

And so the cycle begins. Again.


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