Oh FFS: This Is How Bad Alcohol Is for the Planet
Also revealed: the types of alcohol that have the most negative impact on the environment.
The author, staring down a load of shots. Photo: Jake Lewis
"Oh FFS" is a column where I pick out all the stuff you love most in life and look at how it's destroying the planet. Enjoy!
What is it? C2H5OH, or ethanol, or its more common name: alcohol.
What's that? The liquid that costs anywhere from £1 to £200,000 a bottle, and has a long and storied history of making people do stuff they really wish they hadn't done.
Is it biodegradable? Not very relevant here, that bit.
How bad is the problem?
Like many men in the UK, I've forged a personality based on the way I drink, the types of alcohol I drink and, importantly, where I drink them. Largely, this has been bad. A bad way to build a personal brand. But lately I've been wondering: is alcohol not only bad for me, but also for the environment?
"The first place to look when considering the environmental impact for different types of alcohol are the impacts related to farming the main ingredients: barley for beer, grapes for wine, sugarcane for rum, apples for cider, agave for tequila, and so on," says Tom Cumberlege, Associate Director of corporate carbon measuring company Carbon Trust. "These will typically include fertiliser use, water use and any irrigation requirements; any potential biodiversity impact from deforestation to create new agricultural land; and the efficiency of harvesting, processing and transportation."
And that's not all, Tom adds: "After this, you then need to look into the drinks manufacturing process. For example, the brewing of beer and the distilling of spirits both require quite large amounts of energy, particularly for heat."
Perhaps the worst part of the process is all the packaging, storage and refrigeration dedicated to your favourite bottled coping mechanisms: "Other major areas of impact are production and disposal of packaging, transport and logistics, and the storage and refrigeration of products," says Tom. "These can actually often account for the largest overall proportion of the environmental impact from an alcoholic drink."
In fact, in a test Carbon Trust undertook with Carlsberg, they found that packaging accounts for 40 percent of an average beer's total carbon footprint. That was more than double the amount attributed to agriculture, at 17 percent, which was followed by emissions from breweries and distribution, at 14 percent each; refrigeration, at 9 percent; and the malting and processing of grains, at 6 percent.
"As a rule of thumb, the higher the alcoholic content of a drink, the higher the carbon footprint per litre – so beer is lower than wine, which is lower than spirits," says Tom. "There are also some very specific waste issues associated with making certain types of alcohol. For example, with tequila production, when you pulp an agave plant you get quite a lot of waste, called vinazas, which is acidic and can contaminate soil and water tables when disposed of improperly."
Finally, proof: people who put "gin enthusiast" on their Tinder bios really are the worst. Not only are they insufferable to be around, they're also proudly ruining the planet.
So how do we make alcohol more environmentally friendly?
"Many [global alcohol companies] are introducing big ambitious goals on using clean energy and cooling methods, radically reducing water use and working with their agricultural suppliers to help them become more efficient in their production and adapt to the impacts of climate change," Tom explains. "This is good news, as it means that a lot of the alcohol you will drink is becoming more sustainable without you needing to do anything."
Of course, you could just sit there and do nothing, but you could also pitch in by recycling whenever possible.
"Returnable glass bottles provide a really sustainable option, although one that is not commonly available at the moment," says Tom. "But as we adopt more sustainable farming techniques, use clean energy for manufacturing and transportation, increase the recycling and reuse of packaging, and introduce low global warming potential refrigerants, the environmental impact of alcohol will continue to fall."