Has the time come for reusable beer bottles?
Starting in July, Oregonians may notice that some of their favorite local craft beer looks a little different.
Seven Oregon breweries will be the first to test out the Oregon Beverage Recycling Co-operative's reusable beer bottle.
Oregon will be the first state in the nation to have a statewide reusable beer bottle program.
Taking notes from the Germans, the industry-funded co-op realized that glass bottles don't need to go through an entire recycling process to be reused — they just need to be cleaned.
"Glass is tough, right?" said Jules Bailey, the co-op's chief stewardship officer and director of external relations. "Because glass, even when you crush it and recycle it, it still has to get melted down and blended into new glass. So there's a lot of energy that goes into recycling that glass."
At the current recycling facility in northwest Portland, employees put used containers on a machine belt to go through a sorting device. Aluminum cans are crushed to be recycled into new cans. Plastic bottles are crushed down to be transported to a plant that turns old plastic bottles into clean material to be used again. Glass bottles that aren't reusable are sorted and crushed, then sent to a local glass recycler to be made into new bottles.
The reusable beer bottles are being made at the Owens-Illinois Glass Plant in Portland and are created out of the recycled glass that the beverage industry co-op collects.
Although recycling is better than nothing, the co-op says people should think about the recycling mantra, "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle."
Recycling glass uses a lot more energy than reducing or reusing because the entire process must be redone with the recycled material. According to Bailey, 98 percent of carbon emissions are reduced when using a refillable container instead of a one-way bottle or can. Even if the bottle only gets reused once or twice, that's still much better for the environment than creating an entirely new bottle out of recycled material.
"We're creating a product that's moving up on the hierarchy of environmental responsibility," said Joel Schoening, co-op community relations manager.
Reusable glass bottles will be collected and sent through a high-efficiency washing machine that wipes off the labels. The bottles are all standardized with two sizes – 500 milliliter and 12 ounce, so the only thing that changes from brewery to brewery is the label and the beer inside. The bottles are embossed with "BottleDrop" "Refillable" and "Please Return," so that they can be easily identified.
These refillable bottles are heavier and more durable, meant to be reused 40 to 50 times. The co-op gathered ideas from a few existing programs for reusing bottles, including in Canada and Germany, where refilling beer bottles is the industry standard.
The Oregon Beverage Recycling Co-operative is a private nonprofit that recycles almost all recyclable containers in the state. The co-op collects more than 138 million pounds of recycled containers each year from their 2,700 redemption locations. Once containers are picked up from these locations (which are typically retailers that sell bottled beverages), truckloads are taken to one of eight facilities around the state. The co-op owns and operates all of the Bottle Drop locations around Oregon, where people can go exchange their containers to get their deposits back.
With the new reusable bottle, consumers don't really need to change what they're doing. Bottles are still worth 10 cents and can be redeemed at any redemption center. If they want, people can check out a cardboard crate to bring back their reusable bottles separately from other glass bottles, and they'll get 20 percent more money back.
"If you've been redeeming your bottles before using the green bag account program or returning them to the bottle drop at the grocery store, you can still do that exact same thing, and we'll pick it out and we'll reuse it," Bailey said.
In Oregon, the Oregon Bottle Bill requires stores that sell beverages in recyclable containers to have a way of collecting these containers in exchange for a refund. The Bottle Bill was recently updated, changing the deposit and refund from five cents to 10 cents.
Seven breweries are currently involved, from smaller start-ups to Widmer Brothers, one of Oregon's first and largest craft breweries. The co-op expects more breweries will want to get involved, and says they can meet or beat breweries' current bottle prices. They estimate 2 million to 3 million refillable bottles will go into circulation during the first year.
The bottles distributed to breweries will be filled, then sold at breweries or local retailers. Many local breweries also ship out of state, but these bottles can only be refilled in Oregon through the co-op.
"That'll be something breweries have to manage," said Nick Munson-Phelps, the co-operative's bottle drop refill coordinator. "One of the only difficult things we're asking of brewers is if you're going to ship out of state, that you don't use the refillable bottles for that."
To help with this, more specialty or seasonal brews that are sold locally will likely be put into the reusable bottles. As this program generates revenue, money will be put back into the system and bottle costs will decrease even more for brewers, Bailey said.
Eventually, the co-op hopes to get other states involved. For now, though, they're focusing on expanding in Oregon and getting people to understand the value of reusing.
"We feel like this bottle is paving the way for other states to model something similar," Munson-Phelps said.