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I'm trying to decide if it's worth buying all my beer in reusable growlers (32-64 oz. / 0.9-1.9 liter reusable glass containers). I live in New York, so doing so requires me to go out of my way but is easy compared to some other places: you can buy a growler at some of the bigger Duane Reades (a drug store chain) and take it home, then bring it back for a refill whenever you want. Some bars in the area will also fill growlers. But would doing so make a difference versus recycling the cans and glass bottles I use otherwise? My household drinks at most about one six-pack per week (72 oz. / 2.1 liter), but that could probably be cut back to the 64 oz. (1.9 liter) in a single growler.

I'm also interested in what this would look like on a large scale, i.e. if it became a common practice. It's worth it in my eyes even if I'm doing something that would only be useful on a community scale.

  • How far out of your way do you need to go to have it refilled? Bulk shipping is pretty energy efficient, if you have to travel a significant distance to have it filled versus picking up a 6 pack on your regular shopping trip, that may affect the sustainability. – Johnny Feb 3 '15 at 2:08
  • Any travel would be by subway—--not sure how to factor public transport into a sustainability calculation. Even that wouldn't be more than 30 blocks, though. – prpole Feb 3 '15 at 16:45
  • It would also help to know price difference in purchase of the growler (filled) as to similar quantity of beer in bottles/cans. Also difference in distance from purchasing areas as well as total trips required. Just some things, IMO, that might be important for overall impact. – HasH_BrowN Mar 5 '15 at 22:06
  • Here is a good Q&A sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/326/…, providing details relevant to the question. – HasH_BrowN Mar 5 '15 at 22:14
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Even ignoring energy used in transporting canned/bottled beer to stores, you can save significant amounts of energy.

Since a growler is reusable many times, I'll ignore the energy cost of making it (if making a growler consumes 10 times more energy than to make a bottle and you use it 20 times, it's roughly equivalent in energy to making one half of a bottle)

According to this article at Wired, making a "virgin" aluminum can consumes around 2.1KWh of electricity, but making a new can from recycled aluminum consumes 96% less energy, 0.084KWh. Making a new glass bottle consumes around 1.1KWh of energy, while a recycled glass bottle consumes 26% less energy, or .81KWh.

45% of cans are recycled, so the average energy to create a can is:

0.084KWh * .45 + 2.1 KWh * .55 = 1.19KWh

25% of bottles are recycled, so the average energy to create a bottle is:

.81KWh * .25 + 1.1Kwh * .75 = 1.03 KWh

They work out to about the same, let's split the difference and call it 1.1KWh

Since your household goes through 1 six pack a week, that's 312 bottles/year, or around 343KWh of energy went into making those bottles (the energy consumption would be a bit lower if you're diligent about recycling -- though much higher if you don't recycle cans)

I couldn't find average household energy consumption numbers for NYC, but the average energy consumption for NY state is 603KWh/month.

So, in conclusion, by consuming beer from growlers instead of bottles or cans, you're saving around 17 days worth of your household electrical consumption (or around 4.7% of your annual consumption). (If you live in NYC in multi-unit housing, your monthly energy consumption is likely to be lower than average so your percentage energy savings may be higher).


Like all recycling/reuse efforts, the effect becomes much more more significant if many people make the switch.

In 2012, cans had 52% of the market, and bottles had 36% of the market -- the rest is draft beer (these same numbers quoted here)

The annual beer consumption in the USA is 24186 x 10^6 liters, or 8.2e11 ounces. I don't know the mix between 12oz, 16oz and other odd sizes, but based on what I see at the store, I will guess 75% 12oz, 25% 16oz and ignore the less common sizes.

Therefore, I'll estimate that each can/bottle contains an average of .25 * 16 + .75 * 12 = 13 ounces

So, that's:

8.2 * 10^11 / 13 = 63 billion bottles and cans.

Using the 1.1KWh per container energy costs from above, that's 69.3 * 10^9 KWh

In 2012, annual residential energy consumption was 1.3 million thousand MWh, or 1.3 * 10^12 KWh

In conclusion, if everyone stopped using bottles/cans and used growlers, that would save around 5% of the residential energy used in the USA.

That's much higher than I expected, someone should check my math (I tried to reasonably preserve significant digits, but I cut some corners here and there while cutting and pasting). Bulk pricing (1000+ bottles) for beer bottles seems to be around 50 - 60 cents/bottle excluding shipping, so I suppose it's reasonable that 15 cents of the price goes toward electricity to make the product.

Of course, there's no way that 100% of consumers would switch to growlers, so adjust the numbers accordingly (i.e. if 25% people switch,then the energy savings would account for around 1.3% of residential energy usage).

And other factors would come into play, right now around 90% of recycled glass goes into making bottles, with fewer bottles being made, some of that glass would need to be diverted into other, possibly less suitable uses. At least initially, it might be less convenient, and people might use more energy traveling farther to find beer in a growler, but eventually they'd be refillable everywhere. Perhaps spoilage would become more significant if grocery stores had to discard beer that expired before the keg was empty, and if consumers didn't always drink the entire growler before it expired.

  • This is amazing! But I have to question your rendering of the effect in terms of residential energy. The numbers you supply are energy USED, but it doesn't take into account the energy that goes into making the things that are used but do not in themselves use energy; if you're comparing the energy used in making things like bottles and cans, you'd have to incorporate the energy used in making all the other consumable goods, which would making the residential energy figures much higher. But that's just a quibble with the framing, everything else is super helpful! Thanks! – prpole Feb 17 '15 at 15:25
  • Yeah, I was just trying to put it into some context, you're right that it's not exactly fair to look at household electrical use in isolation, but still it helps show how significant the energy use it. – Johnny Feb 17 '15 at 16:11
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I think you've lost sight of the forest for the trees.

The production and distribution of beer (or pretty much any consumer goods) is one of those things where everybody doing it one way or another at the consumer end is going to have very little impact. What actually needs to change isn't your way of consuming it, but the system of production and distribution. You can effect this change by lobbying to change the rules all the producers and distributors to live by, or you can find a source that does things sustainably, and encouraging your friends and family to do the same.

  • Fair enough, though an assumption of the question is that large-scale change on the consumer side could effect change over the long term on production and distribution---i.e., growlers as a main distribution method would mean transporting kegs rather than bottles to fewer locations. I'm not sure I agree that top-down change through lobbying and governance would make a difference if consumption patterns weren't changing simultaneously. – prpole Feb 9 '15 at 13:30
  • Not this way it couldn't. You're talking about such a tiny change that it may as well not be any change at all. – Ernie Feb 12 '15 at 22:16
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Direct recycle (refilling bottles) is always more efficient that recycling the materials. Direct recycling is nearly a zero input recycle.

However as others have pointed out, transporting air (empty bottles) has an additional cost.

The question is, which costs more? Transportation of empty bottles (crushed glass is transported also, but much more efficiently since it isn't full sized bottles full of air) or running the furnace and machinery to melt and mold the glass into new bottles. (Which direct recycling doesn't require)

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