Recycling, reducing, and composting are all important concepts when it comes to more sustainable packaging design, but reuse, the second directive of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra has thus far been ignored in this series – but no longer! From commercially reused beer bottles in Europe to organic milk container reuse here in the United States, reuse is a simple (and a fun-retro) way to really cut down on the necessity of creating new packaging before it even starts!
The history of reusing beer bottles is longer – and more interesting – than I’d ever expected. And it makes sense – people have been quaffing the naturally fermented hops and barley brew for thousands of years, and it had to be stored in something before being poured down a thirsty hatch, right? The first documented beer brewing was by the Sumerians, 1800 years B.C. and was consumed from ceramic jars with straws (straws?). By 1700, the first glass bottles kept beer fresh until it was ready to drink, and they were capped with corks. Nowadays, one can find beer in recyclable PET bottles, but this writer isn’t looking very hard, preferring glass containers.
I’ve always felt good about drinking my beer from glass, as it’s a natural material that eventually breaks down into benign components and is easily recyclable. But recycling still takes energy – to use even fewer resources (and still enjoy your beer from the bottle) several European countries (most notably Germany* and Denmark) simply reuse beer bottles. You can actually buy a crate of your favorite brew, and when you’re done drinking it, you’re able return the bottles and the crate to the beer center.
*Germany is well-known for its vigorous recycling programs, which go way beyond reusing beer bottles, and include a package reduction initiative too. According to How To Germany, the Green Dot campaign was introduced by the government and has been a huge success: “The crux is that manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a “Green Dot” on products: the more packaging there is, the higher the fee. This clever system has led to less paper, thinner glass and less metal being used, thus creating less garbage to be recycled. The net result: a drastic decline of about one million tons less garbage than normal every year.”
The beer bottle wash and return area (plastics recycling is in the forefront).
At the center the bottles are washed, refilled, capped, and sent back out, full of beer goodness. Each beer company has a different shape and colored bottle, so even if the label is missing, it’s still clear what company each bottle belongs to. This simple process has worked well in Germany, where great local beer is plentiful and drinking the local brew is the preferred choice.
Now keen to this sustainable practice, I wondered if this would work in the US – I live in Connecticut and tend to mostly buy beer from microbrews in New York and New England (especially Vermont!) so in my world, it would be easy to return bottles for cleaning and reuse. I do however acknowledge this might not work as well in other parts of the country, although it does seem that local beer is gaining popularity everywhere.
Back in the day, the only way one could get milk was through home delivery of the fresh stuff several times a week – the milkman was as iconic a figure as the postman. Milk was delivered in glass bottles and once the contents were consumed, the bottles were left to be picked up, cleaned and reused. This practice has been making a gradual comeback in recent years, with families becoming more interested in local food choices, and home delivery is becoming more readily available in areas from California to Colorado to Massachusetts.
Some farms offer organic milk, while others simply certify theirs as rBGH free, but if you are getting milk delivered you can be assured that it’s coming from a local farm that you can visit and see exactly how your milk is produced. A number of farms throughout the United States now offer freshly delivered milk and other dairy products in reusable glass bottles.
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)