As odd as it is to think about, alcohol forms a surprisingly huge part of society, both physically and culturally. Whether it be casually going out for drinks with a friend, wine on a date, vodka to be able to not be a complete mess for that date (that’s not healthy but hey, it happens), and so on. Alcohol is a sizable industry and considering that I work at a large liquor store, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the alcohol industry and the damage and negative impact it has on the environment. What I discovered unfortunately didn’t surprise me – alcohol production, while not the worst industry by any means, definitely has harmful consequences for the environment.
Alcohol is usually grouped into 3 categories – beer, wine, and spirits. The latter is also broken down to specific products, such as rum, vodka, whisky, cognac, liqueurs, gin, tequila, and a bunch of others. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go into the processes that go into making these products. Sufficed to say, it’s complex and fascinating stuff, and I’d definitely recommend reading up on it if you’re interested in the topic. Beer is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage, with 190 billion litres produced in 2012. Wine follows at 28 billion litres, and spirits generally make up quite a bit less (since the alcohol percentage is a lot more, thus less is consumed than beer or wine). Still, that’s a whole lot of liquor being produced on a yearly basis, and despite continually rising costs due to taxes and issues with supply, the demand isn’t going down any time soon.
There are a lot of aspects to the alcohol industry that are detrimental to the environment. First is the issue of growing the base ingredient. Grain is the most common, since this is used to make beer, whisky and most vodka. However, grapes, potatoes, rice, botanicals, sugar cane and agave are also significant in the industry. Within this agricultural stage, we run into our usual problems of fertilizer and machinery use, but there is also the ethical issue of using so much land area and resources that could be used in food aid, but are instead being used to produce items that are not necessary to human survival. Then, there are energy issues, mainly to do with the need for heating to make beer and to distill spirits (wine does not require heating in its production). The damage doesn’t stop when the drink is finished, however. A huge number of bottles, cans and kegs are needed to be able to store and ship alcohol around the world. While most of these are reusable, they are easily broken/damaged, thus creating the need for more to be made.
And as with any product, physical transportation must be considered as well, with many products produced only in certain parts of the world that need to be exported to a vast number of places (for example, tequila can only be made in Mexico and scotch whisky can only be made and aged in Scotland, yet both are available around the world). Finally, the consumption stage generates a lot of waste – from refrigeration to keep products cool to the energy output of establishments whose sole purpose is alcohol distribution (ie, bars, clubs, etc.)
To summarize, alcohol is a luxury. As much as I hate to admit it (I really do love my beer), drinking alcohol is unnecessary and harmful to the environment, as well as to personal health and finance. I have no doubt that I’d be healthier, could save more, and feel less guilty if I drank less or nothing at all compared to what I do now. But that being said, it’s a hard habit to break. I don’t mean to demonize anyone who enjoys to drink, but it really is hard to defend the practice when one takes all the negatives together. So if you’re not planning on stopping (and I’m not saying you necessarily should because then I’d be a total hypocrite), at least consider the impact that your habit can have. Perhaps research some more environmentally friendly alcohol producers that try to minimize their impact (here’s a fun fact – cider is apparently the most environmentally friendly drink due to its simple production process), or invest in a growler (a personal beer bottle) that a store or brewery with a bar can fill up, thus reducing bottling waste. There’s a lot of steps one can take even if they don’t seem obvious at first. Maybe mull it all over with a nice cold one.