Henry Pedro learned something about bauxite mining in a university engineering class that ended up influencing an important decision he had to make in his career as a brewer.
Educated as a chemical engineer, Pedro spent most of his adult life in maintenance engineering until 2013, when he co-founded Boxing Rock Brewing in Shelburne, N.S.
All breweries must decide how they want to sell their alcohol, whether in cans or bottles. It is a big decision — and that’s where Pedro’s knowledge of bauxite proved helpful.
Bauxite is a key ingredient needed to manufacture aluminum. It’s a mineral found in many countries, but it’s more abundant in tropical regions, often sourced from developing countries such as Ghana, Guinea and Guyana. Australia is a notable exception.
How bauxite is mined
Bauxite is often extracted through strip-mining, “a method that leads to vast open pits of devastated land, significant environmental degradation, and the disruption or even destruction of local wildlife, water flows, and other environmental and ecological processes,” notes the book Aluminum Ore: The Political Economy of the Global Bauxite Industry.
From there, the bauxite needs to be smelted to become aluminum.
Bauxite, an ore used to produce aluminium, is processed at a factory in Kamsar, Guinea, owned by the country’s largest mining firm, Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée, in 2008. Guinea is the world’s leading exporter of bauxite. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)
“Aluminum is an incredibly energy-intensive process. We learned how to smelt aluminum in school and they use these gigantic electric arc furnaces to convert aluminum ore into aluminum,” Pedro says.
That knowledge tipped the scales for Boxing Rock to use glass bottles. Those 341-millilitre glass bottles are known as something called industry-standard bottles which, once used, are sent to a facility where they’re stripped of their labels, washed and reused by participating breweries.
These bottles can be reused about 20 times and are the dark-brown ones associated with traditional beer bottles. The company also uses 650-millilitre glass bottles. A reuse program for those is expected to be implemented soon as well.
Spotting beers using printed cans versus sleeve cans can require an up-close look. Of these three cans, only the one in the centre is a printed can. (Craig Paisley/CBC)
Amongst microbreweries in Nova Scotia, only Boxing Rock, Propeller Brewing Co. and Garrison Brewing use the industry-standard bottles for their 341-millilitre bottles.
The non-industry standard bottles used by other craft breweries are either recycled to make new bottles, or used to produce fibreglass.
Aluminum can benefits
As for cans, they have their advantages, Pedro says.
Because cans are lighter in weight, shipping costs are cheaper. Their opacity means they won’t get hit by sunlight and get skunked. Because they’re air tight, they help the beer stay fresher.
But for Pedro, that’s where the advantages pretty much stop.
Besides having a different feel, sleeved cans can be spotted where the label wraps around the can and meets. (Craig Paisley/CBC)
According to Divert Nova Scotia, the organization that oversees recycling in the province, when recycling depots collect aluminum cans, they’re baled and shipped off to the U.S. for recycling and made into new cans.
Of the 368 million beverage containers returned for recycling last year in Nova Scotia, 193 million were aluminum and 27 million were glass.
A tale of 2 aluminum cans
But not all aluminum cans are alike.
The most common type are those in which the label is printed directly on the can. It is the can of choice for mass-produced beers and for some craft breweries in Nova Scotia.
Some breweries print their labels on a plastic sleeve which is then attached to the the can but this also has a downside.
“It becomes a bit of a contaminant,” said Jeff MacCallum, CEO of Divert Nova Scotia. “It creates problems downstream for recyclers because it has a different melting temperature when they process it, and it clumps.”
It’s impossible to say how many sleeve cans are being returned to Nova Scotia recycling depots.
MacCallum said the depots don’t distinguish between the different can types in their reports to Divert Nova Scotia, but he did say the rise in popularity of craft beers has led to more sleeve cans being used.
This aluminum can with a sleeve comes with a recommendation to remove the sleeve before returning it for recycling. (Craig Paisley/CBC)
“To buy the painted cans, you have to buy a much larger volume, so [a sleeve can] allows for smaller scale and flexibility which is why I think you see the market using them,” said MacCallum.
Joshua Counsil is the marketing director and co-founder of Halifax’s Good Robot Brewing Company. His brewery doesn’t have an in-house canning or bottling system. Although the brewery has put out three canned beers using sleeves, this was done by hiring a mobile canning company. He said the sleeves allow for more creative artwork.
Counsil said Good Robot has an environmental committee that’s been looking into the use of sleeve cans and is well aware of the environmental considerations.
Counsil said his preference would be for Good Robot to use industry-standard bottles, but it is just not financially feasible at the moment for the company to buy a bottling system.
As well, he said consumer demands also influence container choices as some beers are better suited to being sold in either cans or bottles.
“Light … beers, that you want to have more than one of, are great for 12- or 16-ounce cans,” said Counsil.
“You can take them camping with you. You can easily transport them … For your higher-end stuff, your big stouts, barley wines and whatnot that you might want to share at a party or give as a gift, there’s still this perception that a bottle is higher quality.”
Since last December, Good Robot Brewing Company has released three beers using sleeve cans. It also sells its beer in growlers and on tap. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)
Counsil said if people are looking to make their drinking decisions purely on environmental reasons, then industry-standard bottles or growlers are the way to go, but people have different reasons for making consumption choices.
“Reused is always the best way to reduce impact. But the fact is people like convenience and not everyone is going to be bringing the bottles back to the depot, they’re not going to be reusing growlers, they’re going to be investing in what’s convenient and cheap for them,” he said.