7 ways to drink sustainably

Rightly, food dominates the sustainable diet debate. While drinking alcohol might only account for two to five per cent of dietary greenhouse gas emissions [GHGE], if sustainability is about making lifestyle changes big and small, what and how we drink offers plenty of instant, easy wins.

GHGE – Greenhouse gas emissions are compound gases that trap heat or long-wave radiation in the atmosphere, making Earth’s surface warmer.

world illustration and temperature

1. Packaging pointers
The best packaging is no packaging. Drinking in pubs where draught beer is drawn from kegs that last decades or, in the age of covid-19, filling a long-life growler at an off-licence, is the greenest option. Failing that, in eco-terms, canned drinks beat glass bottles but both are more eco-friendly than plastic. Our recycling infrastructure is flawed, but the market in recycled glass and particularly aluminium is robust, with 75 per cent of used UK cans recycled. Recycling cans is energy-efficient and, because they weigh less, use less space and stack more easily than bottles, they literally lighten the load for road haulage.

plastic bottle illustration

2. Plastic progress
From Carlsberg using recyclable glue to hold its four-packs together to Coca-Cola ditching shrink-wrap on its multipacks, every manufacturer is racing to replace plastic. But plastic bottles remain a huge problem. In 2017, Parliament’s environmental audit committee found that, annually, only 7.5bn of the 13bn plastic bottles used in Britain are recycled. In particular, avoid coloured or crazily designed bottles, which frequently end up in landfill because they are difficult and costly to recycle – hence Coca-Cola’s making Sprite’s formerly green bottles clear.

3. Drink local?
Studies suggest packaging and the transport of finished drinks – essentially, moving heavy liquid and glass by road – account for 30 to 50 per cent of any drink’s GHGE. Combat that by drinking local (tip: due to its no-heat fermentation and British ingredients, drinking draught cider close to source is pretty green), or, if you can’t drink local products, open your mind to new dispensing methods. Hip bars serving tap-wines from recyclable key-kegs are minimising waste and distribution weight, as are distilleries and retailers such as the Sustainable Spirits Co. or Tottenham’s Victory, which sell spirits in lightweight recyclable and/or re-usable pouches.
Paradoxically, individuals can reduce international transport emissions by buying supermarket wine, which arrives in the UK in tanks, by low-impact container-ship, before being bottled here. Look for a bottling address on the label or a ‘W’ before the bottling code.

What is a key-keg? A lightweight recyclable key made by OneCircle from at least 30 per cent recycled plastic. The keg is filled with a bag that collapses as the liquid drains out. This stops air coming into contact with the leftover contents and increases the shelf life. The size and weight also make the kegs lighter to transport. 

4. Cordial relations
Tea is a relatively eco-friendly drink because it’s a lightweight product to which you add water. Similarly, it’s advantageous to drink squash that you dilute, particularly cordial sold in glass bottles, over pre-packaged drinks.

grapes illustration

5. Green wine
A 175ml glass of wine creates approximately half a pint of beer’s GHGE, but takes 14 litres of water to make, as opposed to beer’s 10. Buying canned wines immediately reduces your tipple’s footprint, although unlike in the US (see Californian wine- makers Larkin or Brick & Mortar), UK availability of high-end canned wines is limited. High-intensity use of pesticides and land erosion is, arguably, wine’s biggest eco-flaw. Drinking natural, organic and/or biodynamic wine addresses that, and several UK vineyards (Davenport, Terlingham and London’s only commercial-scale vineyard, Forty Hall), farm and make wine in that low-intervention way.

6. Principled pints
In 2018, Imperial College London found big brand lagers produce far more GHGE than local ale. Homebrew is greener still. Breweries such as Adnam’s or Sussex’s solar-powered, closed-loop Good Things, which mills spent grains into flour, have acted early to shrink their carbon footprints. There’s also a growing sub-set of beers, from nationally distributed Toast Ale to one-offs like Wild Beer’s whey-based No Water milk stout that use waste food in the brewing process.

whisky in a decanter

7. Spirit guide
According to drinks giant Diageo, a shot of vodka, rum or gin creates under half the CO2 a pint of Guinness does. But add a mixer and those figures rise. Drinking neat spirits is a greener option, with whisky a sound choice. In Scotland, malt whisky producers have been pro-active in greening their dram, with distilleries such as Ncn’ean and community-owned GlenWyvis running on renewable energy. Arbikie distillery recently created a carbon-neutral gin, Nàdar, using peas to create base alcohol.

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