Whether it's the Winter Olympics, the Academy Awards or a President's Day Party, everyone knows that it’s bad form to show up empty-handed to an event — even if it's just in your friends' living room. And an armful of freshly chilled ale rarely raises complaints from the crowd. But at the end of evening, when it's time to pick up the "dead soldiers" — not to mention the chip bags, dip and paper plates — we may well wish we'd brought more sustainable snacks. So when we look at the environmental impact associated with beer, we need to include the impact related to its packaging. For a comparison that brings this to a head, we looked at growlers and six packs.

What’s a growler? Fans of Henry Miller will recall his childhood story of using one to pick up beer for his dad at the tavern, but since the 1890s, we haven’t seen many growlers in U.S. No more than a refillable half-gallon glass jug that can be topped up with beer directly from the tap, growlers have recently become de rigueur among craft beer fanatics. The advantage lies in the wider variety of fresh microbrews you can bring home. But the jugs possess eco-benefits as well. In the green mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” the middle term can sometimes be a bit inconvenient to put into practice. And yet, when you consider buying something, the opportunity for reuse should be kept foremost in mind. Just as with reusable bags, reusable beverage containers — whether they are glass, aluminum or whatever — keep materials out of the waste stream and reduce the need to produce more from virgin resources.

Six-packs come in single-size servings and are eminently recyclable. Unlike plastic, the glass and aluminum bottles that hold beer may be recycled an almost infinite number of times, and in the U.S., aluminum cans are recycled more than any other container.

That’s important because making aluminum from bauxite ore is an ecologically disruptive, energy-intensive process, using the same amount of energy to make aluminum for six cans as is used to power a 50-watt lightbulb for 42 hours. By contrast, manufacturing a new can from recycled aluminum reduces the need for bauxite mining and cuts that energy use by 95 percent. Reducing the material use impacts even further, today’s aluminum beverage can is 10 percent lighter than the cans of 2004.

The production of new glass bottles uses less energy than making new aluminum, and it too is easily recyclable. But because broken glass can pose the threat of injury to workers, recycling facilities in many cities only accept the material when it is intact. Like aluminum cans, though, glass bottles can be made from recycled content, and including recycled content in glass bottles reduces the use of energy, raw materials and CO2 emissions associated with bottle production.

The winner: Growlers

Recycled content (and recyclability) is a key environmental attribute when making purchasing decisions, but reusability gives growlers the green advantage in this debate. How long an item can be reused should be as much a concern when choosing containers as it is when buying tools or clothes. Using a growler means you won’t need to purchase more bottles or cans, which don’t have be manufactured and won’t need to be melted back for reuse. If growlers are unavailable, choose a keg if there are enough people around to drain the tap and by all means pick up infinitely recyclable glass and aluminum if a keg is too much. Among the most difficult to recycle is brown plastic beer bottles, and the manufacture of those containers is also petroleum-based and highly polluting. Whichever option you choose, be sure to reuse whenever possible and when reuse isn’t an option, always recycle.

Contact the breweries in your area and ask if they offer growlers (most do). Visit beerexpedition.com for a list of breweries by region.

This article was reprinted with permission from SimpleSteps.org.

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Growlers vs. six-packs
You may fancy a lager, a stout or an I.P.A., but always consider the container.