Friday, March 01, 2024

Do beer cans and bottles actually get recycled?

Ever wonder what happens to all those cans and bottles we take back to the Beer Store? I did, so I looked into it. Maybe you thought it was all a scam and they just end up the landfill, but it turns out they don't - they actually DO get reused and recycled.

Ontario's Beer Store has had a very successful recycling system for decades now, since long before recycling was trendy. Today, about 1.8 billion alcohol containers are returned to the Beer Store each year, and about 98% of all refillable beer bottles sold in Ontario are reused and/or recycled.

Beer bottles have the best journey as this Beer Store video explains. You take the bottles back to the Beer Store and get your 10c deposit. The bottles are sorted by hand by colour and shape and size. They are then returned to the original brewers for refilling and reusing, after washing and sanitizing (yes, really!) Bottles are typically reused in this way about 15 times, after which they are broken up and recycled like other glass. This all happens quite quickly, usually within a few days. Imported and "non-standard" beer bottles, however, are only used once and then sold to recycling facilities to be ground up and recycled. Another good reason to support local breweries!

Cans, on the other hand, can't be reused in the same way. But aluminum and steel are among the easiest and most cost-effective materials to recycle, as this Beer Store video explains. So, after you get your 10c deposit back, your cans are consolidated into truckloads and then hydraulically crushed into cubes for more efficient shipping. These cubes are sold to can manufacturing factories, where they are melted down into aluminum ingots, then rolled flat into sheets to be made into brand new cans, all within about six weeks. They can be recycled over and over again. Because they are not actually reused directly, cans can be brought in to the Beer Store ready crushed to save space. 

Of course, the Beer Store also collects alcohol containers of any kind, even if they are not sold through the Beer Store itself, provided they are actually sold in Ontario. So, under the Ontario Deposit Return Program, the Beer Store also recycles wine and spirit bottles, coolers and alcopop cans, but also wine boxes and bladders, even ceramic containers, not to mention beverage packaging like bottle caps, pull tabs, plastic wraps and rings, and carrying boxes.

Wine and spirit bottles are not reused, though. They are just broken up and used as road-building materials and for other recycled glass purposes. Better than them ending up landfills, of course, and it does take some pressure off municipalities' own recycling systems. Plus, you get the 20c deposit back, so it's a no-brainer.

As an aside, you may have noticed that beer bottles are becoming rarer and rarer as most breweries move to cheaper and easier-to-handle cans. In particular, as more beer is now being sold in grocery stores and the LCBO as well as at the Beer Store, these stores are insisting on cans rather than bottles because they are easier for them to handle and store, and they take up less space on shelves. 

So, it is commercial interests rather than consumer preferences that have driven this change. I must admit it's a shame - I always preferred bottles - but it seems that cans are here to stay.

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