In February 2020, the drinks industry scored a poor 4.8 out of 10 for sustainability in the inaugural Drinks Industry Sustainability Index Trends Report 2020, published by Magners producer C&C Group and Footprint intelligence. The report recognised the fact that businesses were rethinking packaging, transportation, and wastage with sustainability in mind, but found there had been no great lengths of change in the industry. The drinks industry can require highly intense energy input for the processing of fruits or grains and distilling processes. According to the report’s findings, only 50% of glass containers were recycled in the drinks industry, with bars and restaurants sending 200,000 tonnes of glass to landfill each year. Meanwhile, growing concern for sustainability and plastic pollution within the industry has resulted in the fivefold increase in sales of water in cans.
The issue of ethical consumption and ‘think before you buy’ can be starkly seen in the plastic versus canned drinks debate. According to a citizen survey, conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment in 2019, over half of UK consumers agree that they are less concerned about packaging, including plastics, if their council collects it for recycling. While bottles are one of the most readily collected plastic items – and can be recycled with relative ease – their reprocessing actually does little to benefit the environment long-term. According to, the EU-supported industry consultant group, Zero Waste Europe, Mechanical recycling, which describes the shredding and melting down of used plastic into flake-like grains to be sold on to manufacturers, “is kicking the problem of plastic waste into the long grass”.
This is largely down to the open-loop nature of the plastic recycling process, or as it is better termed, the ‘downcycling’ process. Contrary to popular belief, plastic bottles are rarely used to make more bottles or plastic packaging which, according to a 2017 report from CNBC, means that nearly every drink we buy is packaged in new plastic. It finds that major soft drinks companies only source approximately seven per cent of their plastic from recycled materials. The chemical fibres in plastic bottles and objects, made from the polymer strain PET, considerably weaken when the product is recycled, and are usually turned into items such as carpets, fleece-lined clothing, jumpers, jackets, and sleeping bags. In the making of these goods, various other non-recyclable elements are added, meaning the products are likely to end up in landfill, alongside the 700,000 tonnes of textiles that are thrown away each year in the UK. Further, it remains widely unknown that most of what we throw into our recycling bin never gets reprocessed, because only 2 out of the 7 common plastic varieties are widely recycled (Repurpose Global). Plastic recycling, in most instances, merely delays the inevitable landfill.
Plastic recycling, in most instances, merely delays the inevitable landfill.
A new proposition for the use of aluminium cans promises higher levels of recycling and may be the best replacement for plastic when it comes to beverage packaging. Recycled within a true closed-loop system, aluminium retains its quality each time it is reprocessed, meaning cans are able to be transformed back into themselves an infinite number of times. Unlike plastic bottles, the average rate of recycled content in European aluminium beverage packaging is 47%.
However, there are still downsides associated with the use of cans: aluminium is extracted from bauxite ore, which is strip-mined and incredibly destructive to the natural environment, leaving toxic ‘tailings’, and is highly energy intensive to refine. Roughly speaking, it takes nearly 15 times the amount of energy to produce new aluminium than it does to produce new glass. Even if you take into account the amount of recycled material used in a can, the contrast of energy used in production between a bottle and a can is vast.
The WWF reports that 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year and 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. Yet plastic still remains the modern world’s packaging material of choice: roughly a third of the 350 megatonnes produced globally is used in packaging. According to a European Commission study, PET bottles and their lids are some of the most commonly found items among ocean debris.However, as public perception shifts, and the issue gets pushed up the political agenda, the blame cannot be solely placed on the consumer. Instead, the corporations and systems we live in must change. Endless capitalist growth and consumption provides high demand for cheap and harmful options like plastic packaging. Individual action is important; we must always push for change and advocate for what we want to happen. However, corporations must implement the changes we want to see and take the next steps into cultivating a sustainable production line.
This is a complex issue involving individual action, consumption, business, and industry. What is needed to protect our environment, and promote a future where nature becomes a significant focus, is systemic change. Systems change when sustainable products become accessible to everyone, policy change and legislation ensuring that all socioeconomic groups can acquire a variety of green items. Advocacy for reducing plastic pollution has forced the drinks industry to change production materials, now we must keep on pushing. While the Covid-19 pandemic has put a temporary stop to mass campaigning on the streets, it has also given a new urgency to the warnings that destroying the environment threatens us all. We cannot continue to be unspecific about the action required to address the climate crisis. At some point, we will have to move from a position of simply calling for action to setting out our vision of how we could get to a post-climate-crisis world.
Artwork by Mia Clement