The Environmental Impact of Alcohol Beer, wine and liquor aren't just bad for your body, but also harm the environment
Wine, beer, and spirits are staples of American social life. In fact, alcohol is one of the largest industries in the United States. As a culture, we’re well aware of the impact that alcohol can have on the human body, especially when abused.
Most understand that alcohol use and abuse has the potential to negatively impact a person’s social life, their physical and mental health, and their career, among other things. But few understand the impacts that alcohol consumption can have on the planet.
Alcohol, like anything humans consume, requires a number of natu ral resources. When produced at a mass level, there’s no question that alcohol production and consumption can have a significant impact on the environment.
There are a number of ways in which alcohol production negatively impacts the planet, starting with the process of growing the ingredients necessary to produce alcohol. Grains, potatoes, rice, botanicals, sugar cane, and agave are all significant ingredients in the alcohol industry, each of which require a significant amount of water, fertilizer, land, and use of machinery.
In essence, these resources are being used to produce beverages that aren’t necessary for human survival, which could be diverted to providing food aid for those in need.
There are also issues with packaging and distributing alcoholic beverages. An enormous number of bottles, cans, kegs, plastic, and cardboard boxes are necessary for shipping and distributing alcoholic beverages all over the world. While many of these resources are reusable and recyclable, many are just as easily broken and damaged, creating a need for more to be made.
It’s also important to look at the physical transportation costs that come with distributing alcohol. Tequila is a product that can only be produced in Mexico, and scotch whisky can only be made in Scotland, yet both are readily and widely available all around the world.
According to a recent piece featured in Mother Jones, each alcoholic beverage has environmental impacts that one might not think about.
“In 2008, New Belgium Brewing Company commissioned an environmental analysis of its Fat Tire Amber Ale and found that refrigeration accounted for almost one-third of its overall greenhouse-gas emissions,” Keira Butler writes. “Glass production was second, contributing 22 percent.”
Comparatively, distilled spirits use more energy, ounce, for ounce, and nearly all the water used in productions emerges as waste. Rum is especially toxic to the environment as it’s made from molasses and cane juice, which can disrupt the microorganism balance in the places where it’s distilled. Tequila is just as environmentally hazardous. According to Butler, “For every liter of tequila, you get about 11 pounds of pulp and 10 liters of vinazas, or acidic waste — which ends up befouling soil and water in Mexico’s Jalisco state.”
While it’s important to understand and study the impacts that alcohol has on individuals, families, and public health, it’s just as important to evaluate the impact that alcohol has on the environment. Especially since the health of the environment has direct consequences for our health as well. For those who want to lessen their impact on the environment, there are concrete steps that can be taken.
According to a study by the Food Climate Research Network, “While beer accounts for 80.5 percent of alcohol consumption by volume, it emits only 62 percent of alcohol emissions. Wine’s volume share of alcohol consumption is 16 percent but its emissions contribute over 27 percent of the alcohol total. For spirits, the total volume of consumption is 3.5 percent while its share of emissions is 6.7 percent.”
In addition, it’s also important to evaluate distillers, as some impact the environment more than others. For example, Maker’s Mark, a company that distills whiskey, buys local grain and turns the waste from processing into energy and owns land that is a part of a nature reserve. As attention toward climate change becomes more pressing, more and more distilleries are enacting similar measures to help lessen their environmental impact.
While the consumption of alcohol has long been a part of human culture, it’s important that we evaluate and recognize the relationship that exists between alcohol production, manufacturing, and consumption and the impact that it might have on the environment. Once we understand how these facets interconnect, we can make more responsible choices when it comes to consumption.