Sunday, March 20, 2011

Growlers and Crushers

A big brown growler followed me home on a wet December evening. His tag said his name was Winter Cheer. I kept him, although he didn't last long.

I came of beer drinking age in Minnesota in the era of brown, returnable 12 oz glass bottles. A case of Fox Deluxe or Cold Spring beer (the same beer with different labels, according to one rumor) could be had for about 20 cents a bottle. You only bought the beer, not the bottles: those you returned, in their heavy cardboard case, the next time you bought beer.

Graduate school in Arizona found me swilling beer from blue aluminum cans. "High school beer," friends called it when I brought some on a New Year's Eve camping trip. After I moved to the Northwest I gave in to pressure from less understanding friends. I quaffed microbrews from brown glass bottles and then tossed the bottles. Tossed them into the recycling bucket, that is, then schlepped them to the recycling facility. I tiptoed across the landing and down the stairs so the recycling bucket didn't clink: I believe my neighbors are LDS.

While road-tripping last summer I found canned microbrews from Oskar Blues brewery: Imperial IPA, Pale Ale, Imperial Red...Imperial Stout. Stout in aluminum cans! It helped me brave the rain and the frightening trees at Mt. Rainier National Park that evening.

Cans are lighter, more compact, and safer on road trips than bottles. I understand that, overall, aluminum cans use less energy than glass bottles, as they require less material to make and much less energy to ship. In addition, although the numbers are still shockingly high, fewer cans are thrown away ("only" 55% of them nationwide) than bottles (a horrifying 77% nationwide). I tried to console myself with the fact that my bottles were among the 23% that were recycled. I assumed they were made into bottles again, as my aluminum cans are.

Last summer at Flat Top Ranch, John Peavey got me thinking about glass bottles one evening; we wondered where our recycled glass goes. I've since learned that the Ada County Highway District (ACHD) has been collecting glass bottles from Boise for the past seven years. They were grinding the bottles up and using the material as aggregate in road bases. That is, until four years ago when the glass crusher broke down, according to an article in the Boise Weekly. It wasn't repaired because ACHD now contracts out most of their aggregate needs, as they're building fewer roads.

But the bottles kept arriving at the grinding site south of town. Two glass mountain sprouted, then grew.

The Weekly recently reported a plan: curbside glass recycling in Boise, with higher charges to cover it. The glass will be crushed into fiberglass by a local company. Hopefully, more glass will be recycled with the city picking it up.

When I drink microbrew out of glass bottles what I'm really buying is the bottles, the energy to make them, the energy to ship them, and then to dispose of them. People who throw the bottles away are also buying space in landfills. The beer comes along with the bottles to make me feel better about my use of the world's energy and resources.

That is, until the big brown growler followed me home. Growlers are refillable half gallon glass jugs that breweries refill and resell. And I can now get Fat Tire in cans at WinCo, for those times when I can't get through an entire growler while it still tastes like beer.

Although I'll still have to visit to the recycling facility, as Boise will not pick up recycling at apartment buildings, between the growler and the Fat Tire cans there's less clinking on my way down the stairs.