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What Happens to Beer Bottles When You Return Them to the Beer Store?

We got an inside look at what happens after used beer bottles disappear behind the counter.

20130418_HUM0081-DROSTphoto-4

20130418 HUM0081 DROSTphoto 4

Our tour of the beer bottle recycling process started at a new Beer Store at Eglinton and Laird. The first stage happens in the back room, where clear bottles, coloured bottles, and proprietary bottles (meaning bottles designed for one particular brewer) are separated, placed in cases, and stacked on skids. When brewers arrive with new shipments of drinks, they carry away the skids of empties.

From there, the bottles go to one of two places: either a bottling plant, or to a third-party recycler who crushes them into small pellets called “cullet,” which are then sent to glass manufacturers to use in producing new bottles.

The brown bottle we all know and love is an industry-standard bottle, and many beer brands use it. These standard bottles are the ones that get sent to bottling plants. One-time use bottles, which include imports like Heineken and Corona, are unique in size and shape and can’t easily be reused, so they’re turned into cullet. Clear ones must be separated, because the smallest trace of coloured glass will contaminate a clear batch once it’s melted down.

Not only does the beer store recycle its bottles, it recycles packaging. “Anything we sell, we take it back and recycle it,” says Jeff Newton, President of Canada’s National Brewers, who was with us throughout the tour. Newton points out that the bottle return program is 100 per cent industry funded and diverts bottles from going in the trash. It’s a closed system, where any given bottle can go through the full cycle in under 120 days.

After the Beer Store, we pile into our cars and head off to the Molson Brewery near the airport. We’re made to wear safety glasses, toe caps, and ear plugs to counter the roaring sound of machinery. We start at the loading bay where the skids of empties are unloaded off trailers and put onto conveyer belts to be depalletized. A machine lifts them up to a second level and shifts off the cases one row at a time. Two workers stand by to make sure everything rolls along okay, but the machines do most of the work. “In the old days, when I was a youngster, we had to put them on the line by hand!” muses Bill Patterson, a veteran worker of the factory line.

The bottles roll down the line, clattering and clanging along the metal conveyor belts. Machines separate the broken ones and divert them down another line where they fall into a chute and are saved in a hopper.

The next stage on the line is cleaning. A humungous machine with a big rotating drum takes in 60 bottles at a time and washes them thoroughly with detergent, rinses them out, and removes the labels. The thousands of brown bottles file down the line to the filler stage. An electronic detector flashing like a strobe light scans each bottle looking for minute defects that could spell disaster later on. Rejects are spat onto a separate line and recycled. The good ones go through to the filling machine, which is like a whirling carousel that fills them, caps them, and spits them out into another scanner. Reject bottles are, again, spat down a separate line and dealt with in another factory process.

Next, the bottles are pasteurized. Molson does this by heating them up to 61C for ten minutes. This kills off any microbes that could make people sick, and increases the beer’s shelf life. The bottles come out of the pasteurization stage at around 28C.

The bottles, now filled with delicious beer, continue down the long steel conveyor belts to the labelling machine, which slaps on labels with astounding speed: first on the neck of each bottle, then on the body. The machine is sometimes blindingly fast, sometimes slow and steady. At top speed, it labels 1000 bottles a minute.

After that, the labelled bottles go down the line to be boxed—another job done by a machine in mesmerizing, rhythmic motions. When we were there, two-fours of Carling were being loaded in the blink of an eye, while another machine across from us continually unfolded the cases, glued the bottom flaps, and shot them onto a conveyor which fed them into the loading machine.

Everything in the plant happened with clockwork precision, and all with very few actual human beings involved. In another age, the place might have employed hundreds of people. Today, only 35 employees man the production line. The entire process, from start to finish, only takes two and a half hours.

As for the used aluminum cans that end up at the Molson plant, machines tear off the tops and crush them flat as pancakes. Molson sends them off to another company to process into sheets of aluminum, which are then turned into cans all over again.

The last stop on our tour was in Brampton, at the largest glass manufacturing company in the world, Owens-Illinois (OI). The factory is visible from Highway 410. It has a dirty, rusted exterior. A tall silo contains the raw materials used to make new bottles and is connected to the plant by catwalks high in the air. Down below, a worker drives a front-end loader through heaps of rejected bottles and cullet, dropping them into a bunker that can hold 1000 tonnes of glass. This may sound like a lot, but that’s only enough to last OI about a week. Railway spurs go into the facility so trains can drop off shipments of cullet from the U.S.

Inside the factory, 1000-square-foot furnaces powered by natural gas and electricity use 1500-degree heat to melt the cullet on the second floor. The molten glass drops down though a funnel and mechanical jaws chop it off at regular intervals. The glowing orange globs fall into machines on the first floor, which turn them into bottles by blowing compressed air into them. The glowing hot bottles shuttle down the line and are cooled, inspected, and, ultimately, shipped out. The plant runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, only stopping when it’s necessary to change the bottle moulds and during power outages.

OI uses 50 per cent recycled materials in its bottles, but wants to increase that number. “I think that every glass company out there would like to get their hands on more recycled glass, because it’s just much more energy efficient,” says Walter Dovigo, manufacturing manager at OI. “The demand is high, and we just can’t get enough of it at times because of the demand. We’re making 500,000 bottles on that one line. If every consumer in the GTA brought in a bottle every once in a while we’d have enough to keep ‘er going.”

“It helps divert a lot of material from landfills, but in the process of doing that, and in the process of recycling and reusing the glass as cullet to make new bottles, the greenhouse gas savings and the energy savings associated with that are also huge,” said John Zanini, OI’s vice president of sales. “So it’s not just a recycling program. It’s a greenhouse gas and an energy reduction program.”

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