Thirsty for Sustainable Packaging

One of our biggest activities here at the SPC is our biannual convening of stakeholders in the packaging community for networking and knowledge sharing. We call them the Spring and Fall Meetings, and we like to kick things off at each of them with tours that whet everyone’s appetite for the impending multi-day conversations on sustainable packaging. Sometimes we’ll tour a facility that manufacturers packaging, sometimes we’ll tour a facility that deals with packaging waste (yes, we’re fascinated by garbage, and no, it usually doesn’t smell as bad as you might think). So long as it lives somewhere near the intersection of packaging and sustainability, we’ll tour it so the packaging community can learn more about it.

As much as I love learning about garbage (that’s only partially sarcastic – it’s absolutely worth studying), I hope you can imagine my delight when it was suggested that we look into touring one of Toronto’s many esteemed craft breweries as part of this year’s Spring Meeting, which took place a few weeks back. The search wasn’t long before we found a win-win with Steam Whistle Brewing. Win number one: this company conducts business with sustainability considerations near the forefront. Win number two: they’re located less than a half mile from our event. Actually, make that win-win-win – after all, they do brew beer.

Brewery tours are generally geared towards the beer-inclined, but their staff did a commendable job of appeasing the packaging-inclined. One of the unique parts of their brewery tour is a trip through the offices where the creative department and administrative team work, which was especially great for us because we got to meet Chris Johnston, who oversees all of Steam Whistle’s packaging procurement. I got the impression that the normal routine is for the tour group to pass through the office and simply receive a smile and a wave from the staff, but my tour group subjected Chris to much more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was later remarked that we asked Chris more questions than he’s ever been asked in his decade of being a stop on the tour.

We talked about the PVC lining on their crown closures. We talked about the considerations of using pry-off caps versus twist-off caps. We talked about paperboard beverage carriers. And we talked about the age-old question of whether to use aluminum cans or glass bottles. Overall, Steam Whistle’s glass bottles took center stage, and for good reason.

Beer bottles in Canada are quite different than the ones we’re used to in the States. It’s common for brewers to use the Canadian Industry Standards Bottle (ISB), which is a refillable container on which a refundable 10-cent deposit is levied. These bottles use a considerably larger amount of glass than the single-use bottles we’re used to, but they can be reused 15-20 times before they fail (we were told that failure occurs most commonly at the finish – that’s the threaded part at the top). The deposit system provides a high rate of return to ensure that they are collected for reuse and eventual recycling.

Steam Whistle, however, chooses to use a bottle of their own design. Their bottle uses 30% more glass than the ISB, but it can be reused up to 35 times. The tradeoff? Whereas brewers using the ISB can take in used bottles put forth by any other brewer, Steam Whistle must take back their own bottles – and they distribute coast-to-coast in Canada. It opened up intriguing questions among our tour group about a number of sustainability tradeoffs, and certainly whet our appetites for an enjoyable couple days of focusing on sustainable packaging. And it also whet our appetites for more beer. Big thanks to the Steam Whistle team, especially Chris!

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