Gallery: Packaging the Future: Packaging Reuse – What a Concept!


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.

+ Packaging the Future

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 (


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  1. trueislander October 18, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    It’s strange that Anheuser-Busch did away with their returnable bottle program back in the early 90’s. They did this with Budweiser and Bud Light in standard 12oz pop top bottles. Bars and restaurants were the primary participants as you could only buy them by the case. The bottles went back into the cardboard case that was picked up by the delivery guy and the bar/restaurant received a credit. Even the cardboard cases were reused if not too damaged. I’m sure a combination of shipping costs/logistics and a general American lack of interest led to the discontinuation of this program

  2. October 18, 2010 at 4:24 am

    Sarah – while it’s great when we find solutions where we can safe both money _and_ ressources, many ecological problems can’t be solved that way: Making profit in a market economy relies heavily on externalizing (ecological) costs, e.g. leaving some of the costs for the rest of the population.
    That’s why we often find ourselves in positions where we have to force the polluters into cooperation, as happened here in Germany, which means implementing regulations on a national level. The Green Dot faced some fierce opposition from the corporations in the packaging industries.

  3. dtremit October 18, 2010 at 1:08 am

    It would seem to me that uniquely shaped bottles would be more of a hindrance than a help. Why not standardize the shapes and colors so you wouldn\’t have to worry about who gets which bottles back? At the very least, that might make sense for small brewers, who rarely seem to have unusual bottles anyway.

  4. Sarah J October 16, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    I love this – the emphasis for our blog is green this month. We have a glass growler that we get refilled weekly at our local microbrewery – we save money so we win and the earth wins.


  5. Packaging the Future: R... October 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

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  6. Modular_Thailand October 14, 2010 at 12:34 am

    “Recycling, reducing, and composting are all important concepts when it comes to more sustainable packaging” This is true, but let me share for additional concept, Usability is also importance. In Thailand university has always awarded to student who can accommodate Green and Usability concept to create commercial packaging.


  7. vfenninger October 13, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    As Reimer stated, we have a great system in Canada (that I guess I just assumed was also used in other countries). It just makes sense to re-use beer bottles. In Ontario when you buy a case of beer you pay a deposit on the bottles (10 cents each) and when you return them you get the money back. You get 10 cents for returning beer bottles, 5 cents for cans, 20 cents for whine and other alcohol and $50 for kegs. All returnable at the Beer Store for refunds.
    Now if only we had those cool re-usable crates!

  8. Starre Vartan October 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    I really think the beer tastes better out of glass; I have heard good arguments for the plastic bottles since they are much lighter to ship than glass (so fewer fossil fuels), but they don’t keep the beer cold for very long (warm beer, ugh!). Also plastic IS made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, so there’s oil being used on the creation end, plus egregious recycling rates for plastic in the US, so I’ll stick with glass, since if it does end up in the ocean or woods, will eventually degrade, unlike plastic.

  9. Reimer October 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    We in Ontario have a recycling program like this already in place. Most alcohol is sold is sold at either The Beer Store or at an LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) store and all liquor containers can be returned at any Beer Store location for a refund whether they be be bottles, cans, or kegs. I think its a great system!

  10. Yuka Yoneda October 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    The Green Dot idea is wonderful. Yes, once again, I feel like America is behind the curve compared to Europe when it comes to recycling…

  11. Jasmin Malik Chua October 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    There’s just something more luxurious about drinking from a glass bottle.

  12. Diane Pham October 13, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    i love this idea. i really don’t understand why americans don’t use and recycle bottles the way europeans do.

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