As consumer awareness of environmental issues grows, so do the number of initiatives from drinks producers to meet demand for more sustainable practices. Sustainability is having an impact on everything from packaging to production methods and ingredient sourcing, with drinks producers looking at activities such as waste reduction, eco-friendly packaging programmes and carbon footprint levels. As a result, there are many benchmarks to measure sustainability too, but carbon levels are one of the more established, and arguably the one most recognised by consumers.
While a handful of pioneering drinks producers already became carbon neutral a few years ago, a growing number of distillers, breweries and wineries are taking a closer look at their carbon emissions. And for good reason: the drinks industry is a significant contributor to carbon emissions. This large carbon footprint is the result of various stages in the production process, from the farming of the raw material – which includes use of fertilisers, transportation and processing – through the energy and resources used to produce the drink itself, all the way through to the packaging, transportation and refrigeration of the finished product.
According to Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) research on the carbon footprint of spirits, actual distillation accounts for between 36% and 40% of these emissions, while a spirit’s glass bottle contributes between 19% and 20%. The remainder is accounted for by warehousing, base materials, transport and more.
Breakdowns like this suggest that there are a number of ways for producers to either reduce their carbon footprint, or potentially even have a positive benefit. For some, this involves changes to production processes, while others rely on carbon offsetting, usually by planting trees.
Methods of carbon reduction vary greatly between producers: some breweries, wineries and distilleries achieve carbon neutrality by increasing their use of renewable energy such wind-power, or through technology advances such as four-column fractional distillation stills instead of traditional pot stills.
Other drinks producers focus their carbon-related efforts and intent to be “carbon positive” through the planting of trees – in some cases, as many as one tree per bottle. By using locally grown timber for distillation, and replanting those trees afterwards, distillers are effectively reducing their carbon footprints, if not cancelling them entirely.
Another innovative approach to reducing carbon emissions within spirits looks at the ingredients themselves rather than production methods. Instead of grains, some distilleries are experimenting with peas as a base; this method means the by-product can be used to replace environmentally damaging soybeans as a protein-rich animal feed, alongside the added bonus of reducing the carbon emissions from the distillation process.
Beer brewers, too, are turning their attention to their environmental impact by experimenting with high-yielding barley to reduce emissions from transportation, and pest-resistant hop strains to reduce pesticide use.
In terms of packaging, and considering the high percentage of carbon emissions contributed by glass bottles, initiatives from drinks producers to adapt their packaging can have a significant beneficial impact on carbon impact. With restrictions on single-use plastics now being passed into law in many markets across the world, and consumer awareness at an all-time high, drinks producers would do well to be ahead of the curve when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of their packaging.
As new technologies begin to emerge that help drinks producers reduce their carbon emissions, or even to become fully carbon neutral, consumer demand for carbon-neutral drinks can be expected to rise too.
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