Industry pioneers reusable beer bottles
Starting in July, Oregonians may notice 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 Cooperative's reusable beer bottles.
Oregon will be the first 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."
The co-op, made up of beverage distributors and large grocers, helps manage the container recycling required by the Oregon Bottle Bill.
At the co-op's 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 to be transported to the ORPET plant in St. Helens, where old plastic bottles are turned 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 new reusable beer bottles are being made at Owens-Illinois Glass Plant near Portland International Airport, and are created out of the recycled glass that the industry co-op collects.
Though recycling is better for the environment than throwing containers in the landfill, 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 it because the entire process must be redone with the recycled material. According to Bailey, 98 percent of carbon emissions are eliminated by using a refillable container. 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 milliliters and 12 ounces — 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 they can be easily identified.
The 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 Canada and Germany, where refilling beer bottles is the industry standard.
The Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, a private nonprofit, collects more than 138 million pounds of recycled containers each year from 2,700 redemption locations, typically retailers that sell beverages. Truckloads are taken to eight facilities around the state.
The co-op also owns and operates Bottle Drop operations around Oregon, set up by grocers so people can return containers off-site to redeem their deposits.
With the new reusable bottle, consumers won'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," said Bailey, formerly a state lawmaker and Multnomah County commissioner.
The Oregon Bottle Bill requires stores that sell beverages in recyclable containers to have a way of collecting the containers in exchange for a refund. The Bottle Bill recently was updated, raising the deposit and refund from 5 cents to 10 cents.
Seven breweries currently are involved, from smaller startups 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. Co-op leaders 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 the new bottles can only be refilled in Oregon through the co-op.
"That'll be something breweries have to manage," said Nick Munson-Phelps, the cooperative's BottleDrop 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."
Eventually, the co-op hopes to get other states involved somehow. 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.