From growing raw materials to shipping finished products, the drinks industry has a huge impact on the environment and our climate, directly and indirectly responsible for untold tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses each year. If you care about the livability of the planet, thinking about the environmental costs of your favorite beverage might make you lose your thirst.

But don’t despair — there are ways to fix the carbon impacts of the drinks we love. Best of all, many of those answers don’t lie in some far-off, idyllic future. Instead, a number of functional climate solutions are already in use, with more coming online every day, including more responsible methods of farming, reusable packaging, and innovative new sources of energy. If the problems seem serious and overwhelming, that’s OK — they are. But the emerging answers are all worth drinking to.

Chemistry Plus Calisthenics

It’s easy to forget that most drinks are made out of farmed goods. Agriculture itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses, the fourth-largest sector after electricity and heat, transport, and manufacturing and construction. More significantly, agriculture is the main contributor of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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That primarily comes through the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, used to grow crops around the world. Between 1961 and 2019, the global use of nitrogen fertilizer increased by 800 percent, despite requiring extensive energy resources of its own.

“The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is unsustainable,” wrote the authors of a 2022 research paper published in the academic journal Scientific Reports. “Reducing overall production and use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers offers … realizable potential to reduce emissions.”

To put that into perspective, consider a country like Scotland, where nitrous oxide counts for 7.9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which 81 percent was directly attributable to agriculture, according to UNEP. It’s a costly way to grow crops, with massive impacts including soil and water pollution that go way beyond greenhouse gasses. And sadly, it’s not very efficient: UNEP says that about half the nitrogen fertilizer applied in Scotland is simply lost to the environment.

Barley, corn, and most of the other grains used by the drinks industry generally require large amounts of nitrogen. The USDA estimates that fertilizer accounts for 36 percent of the cost of growing corn. But there are some crops that don’t need synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, as Kirsty Black, master distiller at Arbikie Highland Estate, explains.

“The world is very abundant in nitrogen — the air we’re breathing in right now is nearly 80 percent nitrogen,” she says. “There’s lots of it, but it’s not in a form that most plants can use. That’s where peas and legumes are different. They can take the nitrogen from the air and they turn it into a form that they can use.”

Peas might not be recommended (or even legal) for Scotch production, but they can work fine as the base for gin and vodka. As a working farm, Arbikie grows its own pea crop, which Black uses for Arbikie’s Nàdar Collection, named after the Gaelic word for nature.

Farming peas doesn’t just mean that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer isn’t needed when they’re in the ground. They also have a positive impact afterward.

“Currently we’re focused on increasing our mix of the Frugal bottle and ecoSPIRITS over the glass bottle, so that we reduce our carbon intensity per bottle sold.”

“The peas are taking nitrogen from the air for themselves, but they also release it from their roots into the soil,” Black says. “After you harvest it, the pea plant that’s left that gets plowed back in is really nitrogen-rich. It’s adding some natural nitrogen back into the soil, so you need less for the next crop.”

According to Arbikie, that means that each bottle of Nàdar gin or vodka has a footprint of about -1.53 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) when it leaves the distillery, making it a net positive for the planet. And they’re not just do-gooders — they also taste good. With a rating of 94 points, Nàdar vodka ranked as one of VinePair’s 50 Best Spirits of 2023.

Message in a Bottle

According to a study from the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), glass bottles rank as the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of wine and the second-largest factor for spirits, after the energy-intensive work of distillation. Moving away from heavy glass bottles to recyclable paper bottles like those from Frugalpac is one option. Another: reusable bulk packaging like the kind made by ecoSPIRITS, which claims it can offer a 60 to 90 percent reduction in the carbon emissions footprint for packaging and distribution of spirits.

It isn’t necessarily an either-or situation. The upstart Calvados producer Avallen uses both Frugalpac’s paper Frugal Bottles and the reusable bulk packaging solutions from ecoSPIRITS, as well as a more traditional glass bottle (albeit in a lightweight version made from 65 percent recycled glass). Avallen co-founder Tim Etherington-Judge says that the response to the new packaging has been extremely positive.

“The Frugal bottle is beautiful, and the ecoSPIRITS technology is genuinely game-changing for the on-trade,” he says. Having multiple options gives Avallen, a certified B Corp and member of One Percent for the Planet, a chance to improve its environmental impact even further. “Currently we’re focused on increasing our mix of the Frugal bottle and ecoSPIRITS over the glass bottle, so that we reduce our carbon intensity per bottle sold.”

“We used to have a bar in Japan. We used to send to the U.S. as well, and then we realized that the footprint of that was just absolutely huge. We lost volume. We lost deals. We closed the bar we had in Japan. That was the opposite of a financial incentive.”

Reusable packaging for spirits might sound cutting-edge, but it’s starting to look inevitable. After its initial U.S. test-runs last year, ecoSPIRITS announced expansion plans last month, starting in Las Vegas, where Cointreau will be the first brand to become available to bars and restaurants in reusable packaging, “before expanding further across the country.”

For producers that haven’t yet considered using reusable packaging, Etherington-Judge offers a few words of advice: “Get on board or get left behind.”

Focus on the Local

The carbon footprint of beer has different issues, including high water and energy use. In general, refrigeration and transportation contribute more to beer’s carbon footprint than they do for wine and spirits, according to BIER, though the size and makeup of beer’s packaging can make a difference.

For beer drinkers who want to help the planet, the easiest solution is to drink local and choose draft beer whenever possible, since cans and bottles pump out far more carbon per pint than reusable kegs do. On the production side, brewers have numerous options available.

“Inside the distillery, about 82 percent of our energy footprint has to do with how we produce steam.”

When Belgium’s celebrated Brussels Beer Project (BBP) started looking at ways to reduce its carbon footprint, it initially focused on buying barley malt produced through regenerative agriculture, which usually means that the grain was farmed in rotation with nitrogen-fixing crops — peas, again — that can reduce the need for fertilizer.

After changing its malt purchases, BBP looked for other ways to reduce its carbon impact, including rethinking its long-distance exports. According to Sam Fleet, the brewery’s production manager, some of the decisions BBP made were tough on the bottom line, though vastly better for the planet.

“We used to have a bar in Japan. We used to send to the U.S. as well, and then we realized that the footprint of that was just absolutely huge,” he says. “We lost volume. We lost deals. We closed the bar we had in Japan. That was the opposite of a financial incentive.”

As a result, BBP now only exports to countries within the EU, selling about 82 percent of its production in Belgium itself. In addition, the brewery stopped using plastic, one-way kegs for most draft beer, investing instead in returnable, stainless-steel kegs, which Fleet says actually end up costing less money overall. To reduce its energy consumption, the brewery invested in rooftop solar panels and now generates about 35 percent of the electricity it needs each year, according to its 2023 sustainability report.

After a previous career working at Friends of the Earth, Fleet knows that there’s a long way to go before brewing can really be considered sustainable.

“There are still things to improve and things we can work on,” he says. “But you know, I’m actually really proud of what we’ve done as a brewery. I hope that it’s setting a bit of an example of what a craft brewery can do.”

More Improvements to Come

One of the last puzzle pieces to make the drinks industry more sustainable is the intense amount of energy required for production. Until recently, it’s been just about impossible to brew beer or distill spirits without burning some kind of carbon-based fuel. But solutions are starting to surface. Arbikie is in the process of switching over to hydrogen, a carbon-neutral fuel that the distillery plans to produce itself.

“Inside the distillery, about 82 percent of our energy footprint has to do with how we produce steam,” Black says. “So we are switching to burn hydrogen instead. We have a wind turbine to produce electricity. That’s green electricity that powers an electrolyzer, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, and we burn the hydrogen to make steam.”

Arbikie has published open-access reports on both the Nàdar project and its own hydrogen-fuel plans, Black says, in the hope of attracting other distilleries to follow suit. Some large producers are said to be looking at hydrogen as a potential fuel, primarily because of the potential financial savings. But Black’s take is that it’s really about sustainability, not money. When you’re distilling spirits from crops you grow yourself, that importance might be easier to grasp.

“I think there’s a big disconnect for most distilleries — they buy in something that’s just ready to go. They’re not thinking about where it came from,” she says. “We’re so connected because we’re on the farm here.”

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