How Beer Paves The Way For Circular Economy Packaging
If you live in Ontario, like many during these extended pandemic lockdowns, you may have found your pile of empties to return to the beer store stacking up a little quicker than usual. And with not much else to do, returning your empties may have become as exciting as going to an actual bar once was, I know these are both true of my lockdown experience. But with all this extra time and brain space, have you given any thought to what the deal is with those empty cans and bottles? Or have you thought, why do we return beer and wine empties but not pop bottles? I began to think about these questions during my most recent trip to the beer store and decided to do some digging.
How’d we get here?
A question you might have to ask after a particularly heavy beer store run:”how did we get here?” luckily the answer, in this case, is a simple one. The brewery industry itself had been reusing beer bottles for decades before it was even close to becoming law. The beer store began it’s deposit program in 1927 and ran it for nearly a century before the province of Ontario expanded and formalized the system through legislation in 2007. With the Ontario Deposit Return Program (ODRP), helpfully nicknamed ‘Bag it Back’, the province began to grow the seeds for the recycling and reuse program we have today. The province expanded the program in 2015 and signed a 10-year deal with the Beer Store, which you may have heard, caused some waves with the new provincial government a few years ago. However, the system has run well since it was enacted, having return rates consistently averaging above 80% and having passed the mark of the 3 billionth can and bottle recycled through the system back in 2017. The process for reusable bottles is particularly interesting, with an upwards of 90% return rate, and an arguably balletic and oddly satisfying process for taking bottles from returned empties to refilled bottles ready for sale.To learn more about the intricacies of the reuse and recycling project check out this awesome article from the Torontoist which goes into a bit more detail.
Room for improvement
Despite solid return rates, consumer support, and bipartisan agreement around the program’s environmental impacts, the deposit return program has been in jeopardy several times in recent memory. Most recently the program was paused due to concerns around safety at the beginning of the first COVID lockdown, though these were lifted after only a few weeks. However, in the past, it has faced more systemic threats, with the province allegedly considering loosening the program when they were drafting new legislation under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act last year. Although the government did not end up going in this direction, the fact that it was on the table troubled many, especially when most experts argue we should be moving in the opposite direction. Many other provinces have had similar return programs in place for much longer than Ontario which also service a much broader range of beverage containers. It’s not hard to imagine how Ontario’s system could look something like Alberta’s, which adds all ready-to-serve beverage containers (including soft drinks, energy drinks, water, and juice containers) to it’s return program while maintaining a similar return rate to Ontario’s existing program. A switch like this wouldn’t just help the environment, it would also help the province’s pocketbook. Estimates show that an expansion of the deposit return program could result in the overall cost per tonne of material recycled dropping from $314 to $269, while also increasing the provincial recycling rate by roughly 10% and creating a few hundred jobs as a nice bonus! So with new provincial programs abound in the battle to recover from the COVID pandemic, now would be the perfect time to expand our return program to include other beverage containers. But then again, could we go even further? Could we get closer to the goal of Zero Waste?
Where do we go from here?
After doing this initial research on the beer store and other provincial return programs we started to wonder why stop at a deposit return program just for beverage containers?
There are plenty of sustainable packaging systems that target all types of waste streams from consumer coffee cups to industrial packaging waste. You may have seen that lately takeout container deposit systems have been booming, with return programs being put in place by private companies in cities from Waterloo to Toronto. But other innovative models are pushing the envelope in order to return and reuse even more packaging that would normally be considered waste. You may have heard about the launch of Loop here in Ontario, which began offering select products in returnable reusable formats in select Loblaws last year, though ended abruptly after less than a year, in part due to some mixed reviews. Circulr began piloting our model around the same time as the Loop launch and we are still going strong. Our model is focused on building a platform for reuse aimed at small to medium-sized local food brands.
Along with our peers in the reuse space, we’re on the path to a future in which pretty much everything you buy will come in a package that won’t see the inside of a landfill after you use it once. If you want to speed up the transition to this more sustainable future, you can support some of the amazing initiatives mentioned in this piece, and you can return your empty beer bottles and cans to your local beer store after celebrating your small contribution to the growing circular economy.