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A Planet-Sized Hangover? How alcohol production harms the environment and a new hop!

Now that summer has come (finally in UK/Europe), enjoying a few beers or cocktails to combat the heat is a lovely activity. A glass of wine is also never out of the question. But while we’re enjoying mixing and downing drinks, it’s important to be aware of how this can affect the environment. When you consume alcohol, you’re not only giving yourself a hangover, you’re also giving one to the planet. The only difference is Earth’s hangover is not quite so temporary. 

Alcohol production is surprisingly environmentally harmful. From farming its raw ingredients to distilling and eventually consumption, the process produces much carbon and waste. In fact, in the UK, alcohol makes up approximately 1.5% of total carbon emissions. To put this into perspective, consuming three to five pints of beer weekly equates to 139kg of greenhouse gas emissions a year.



Alcohol production starts with farming ingredients like barley, hops, grains, and grapes. With beer especially, farming hop utilises many pesticides, which damages soil quality and undermines wildlife habitats. It can also harm the food supplies of bird species. For wine, grape-growing is a major contributor to its carbon footprint. Furthermore, growing ingredients for alcohol utilises agricultural land that can be used for food production instead. This is important to consider as global food insecurity is rising.



The manufacturing stage of alcohol production can also be environmentally harmful as it is very energy-intensive. This includes processes like the crushing of grains, fermenting, and filtering. For beer, a major contributor to its carbon footprint is the greenhouse gas emissions from breweries. Similarly, for spirits, this is distillation. It’s also important to note that processes like these produce a lot of waste. In fact, approximately 92% of brewing ingredients are wasted during production. This waste can runoff and pollute local environments, especially sources of drinking water. In this way, alcohol production can impact water security. It is a very water intensive process as producing a litre of wine and beer each use 870 and 300 litres of water respectively. As such, local communities in Mexico and South Africa have been affected as multinational beer companies have undermined their water security.

Packaging & Consumption

The packaging of alcohol, especially metals and plastic, is also an important aspect to consider. In 2007, the alcohol packaging was estimated to contribute 1.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions in the UK. For beer cans alone, emissions are estimated at 340,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It is clear that a big part of alcohol’s carbon footprint comes from packaging. However, the environmental harm does not end at the production stage. Roughly half of all alcohol containers do not end up being recycled and instead end up in landfills. This has become more of a problem over time as drinking habits have changed from drinking in pubs and restaurants to more so drinking at home. As such, alcohol packaging has become more prominent as a pollutant. In 2019, Break Free From Plastic found that alcohol brands Heineken, Carlsberg and AB-InBev were among the top plastic polluting brands in the world through a plastic brand audit. Pollution like this is detrimental to the environment as it contributes to climate change


No more parties? Is that even possible? Worry not, here is how you can enjoy without giving the planet a hangover

Alcohol production is an environmentally harmful process. So what is the best solution? Obviously, it is almost impossible to stop alcohol consumption all together, but there are still some steps we can take to make sure we’re reducing our impact on the planet. One solution that you yourself can do is to recycle better. In the UK, half of alcohol containers are thrown into general waste and do not end up being recycled. As such, making sure that you throw cans in the right bin can make a huge difference. For example, recycling aluminium uses considerably less energy and produces less carbon emissions than producing it from scratch. So you can definitely still have boozy (and sustainable!) parties as long as you practise proper recycling. Apart from this, widespread changes like more sustainable farming techniques and using clean and renewable energy can be implemented. In Spain, for example, a startup has been working on sustainable indoor hop farming which does not use pesticides, but is just as productive as outdoor growing. Measures like this can reduce alcohol’s environmental footprint. So the next time you go for a drink, spend a bit of time learning about the drinks and their origins. Perhaps you might even find a new passion – finding sustainable drinks! 



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