Matt Mahar | Cana CEO

The Beverage Industry is a Silent Climate Killer

By the time you finish reading this article, more than 5 million bottles will have been added to the mountains of waste that are taking over the planet. For decades, we’ve been told that recycling is the solution to the fundamental unsustainability of the beverage industry. Now it’s clear that recycling isn’t cutting it and that consumers alone can’t clean up the industry’s mess.

April 22, 2022

By the time you finish reading this article, more than 5 million bottles will have been added to the mountains of waste that are taking over the planet. For decades, we’ve been told that recycling is the solution to the fundamental unsustainability of the beverage industry. Now it’s clear that recycling isn’t cutting it and that consumers alone can’t clean up the industry’s mess. At a time when companies producing everything from cars to toothpaste are going green, we’ve somehow overlooked the massive climate impact of the $2 trillion beverage industry. It’s time to address this problem at its core.

When looking at the can of La Croix on our desk or the bottle of wine on our dinner table, we don’t see the gnarly and environmentally destructive supply chain that brought it there. Every bottled beverage we drink has traveled hundreds to thousands of miles to reach us after it was molded from scarce raw materials at an energy intensive factory. It has been a stowaway on diesel guzzling ships and heavy freight trucks, and an environmental fugitive in sprawling warehouses and cavernous industrial refrigerators.

At each step in the journey from the factory to your lips, the environmental footprint of your favorite drink grows larger. The simple fact is that the modern beverage industry is a slow motion climate disaster—and the longer we ignore this fact the harder it will be to save our planet.

The Anatomy of a Broken Industry

The problems with the bottled beverage industry start at the source. The primary ingredient in all bottled beverages is water, with just a splash of flavoring, and the industry’s impact on the world’s aquifers is enormous. Producing a single bottle of wine requires more than 600 liters of water to grow the grapes and it can take up to 300 liters of water to produce a half liter of soda. But the water impact of the beverage industry is just the start.

Producing and bottling beverages requires a tremendous amount of energy to run the machinery and manufacture the vessels. In the US, about 17 million barrels of oil are required every year to create the plastic for bottled water alone—enough to fuel 1.3M cars for a year. The machines that are used to make these bottles usually run on power supplied by coal-fired furnaces or natural gas pipelines. Depending on where in the world the beverage is bottled, there may be limited environmental protections in place to mitigate the emissions or chemical waste produced from operating bottling factories.

Once the beverages are bottled, their carbon footprint is magnified by shipping networks that deliver them to the end consumer. The network of massive cargo ships that transport the bulk of our consumer goods around the world is responsible for at least 3% of global emissions. But even domestically bottled beverages can’t escape the diesel-burning trucks that deliver them to stores across the US, where we put them in plastic bags and carry them home in the trunk of our gas-powered cars. By the time we pull a beer from our mini-fridge—itself an unsustainable appliance birthed by the beverage industry—it has a carbon footprint of about 500 grams of CO2. That’s the same amount of emissions as driving about a mile in a typical car and given that the US beer industry produces the equivalent of 2.8 billion 24-packs of beer a year, it’s a significant contributor to our carbon footprint.

The environmental impacts of the beverage industry don’t stop at the point of consumption, however. Although an increasing number of consumers are participating in recycling programs, the sad reality is that two-thirds of our plastic ends up in landfills or the environment. In fact, a coastal clean-up report found that plastic bottles were one of the most common types of marine pollution behind only plastic lids and cigarette butts. As these bottles slowly degrade, they produce microplastics that end up in our food and water before they infiltrate our bodies and make it into our bloodstream.

Even those bottles that do make it to a recycling facility take their toll on the environment. Recycling is an energy intensive process that ranks low in terms of its ability to mitigate our climate impact as consumers. Recycling a plastic or glass bottle, for example, requires heat to melt the bottles and these high-temperature furnaces are often fueled by burning natural gas. Furthermore, the process of melting plastic releases volatile organic compounds, a class of gasses that further adds to the bottle’s lifetime emissions.

How to Build a Sustainable Future for the Beverage Industry

When the climate impacts of the beverage industry are added up, we are left with some sobering conclusions. Each year, the industry is directly responsible for about half as much greenhouse gas emissions as the entire country of Australia, it consumes enough water to meet the needs of a billion people, and results in tens of billions of bottles discarded in landfills. It’s clear that the best–and perhaps only–way to clean up the beverage industry is to avoid bottled drinks entirely.

There are several pathways to dismantling the unsustainable beverage industry as it exists today. Eco-friendly packaging, renewable energy sources for manufacturing, and water recycling systems have all been used to great effect to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. Since 2015, the industry has reduced its water use by nearly 2%, its energy use by 6%, and a 17% decrease in emissions despite producing more beverages than ever.

Still, this progress is not nearly enough. Instead, the best way to address the climate challenges of the beverage industry is by moving to a decentralized manufacturing ecosystem. Rather than shipping raw ingredients halfway around the world and then shipping the finished product back again, we need to find hyperlocal ways of producing the beverages we love while avoiding their environmental impact. The only way we’re going to compete with the convenience of a bottled drink is through the thoughtful application of science and engineering to this problem.

Advancements in flavor science and the internet of things have laid the foundation for a revolution in beverage production. We now know that only a handful of flavors are responsible for the vast majority of a drink’s taste and we know that it’s possible to isolate these compounds and recreate popular beverages from their raw ingredients. But rather than fermenting our own wine grapes or mixing our own sodas, we now have the technology for a machine to precisely produce these drinks on its own. What once required a football-field sized manufacturing facility can now fit on a countertop and produce any drink imaginable. It sounds like something out of the Jetsons, but it’s already here.

While other solutions exist, such as raising taxes on bottled beverages to disincentivize their purchase, these will always run up against the challenges posed by consumer preference. We’ve come to love soda, sparkling water, and fruit juices, and we’ve been drinking wine and beer for thousands of years. This ultimately means we won’t be able to solve the beverage industry’s environmental challenges until we can find adequate replacements for these consumer products because the demand isn’t going to go away.

Moving to a decentralized and hyperlocal framework for beverage production is the fastest and easiest way to reduce the massive environmental impact of the industry. It will avoid the costly and time-consuming processes of instituting regulatory change or creating new recycling facilities and technologies. When it comes to fighting climate change, time is of the essence. We need to deploy new beverage technologies at scale that allow billions of people to continue to enjoy their favorite drinks without killing our planet in the process.