Empty isn’t necessarily the end for a beer bottle: Sonoma County’s Conscious Container launches pilot effort to collect, clean, reuse

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KATHRYN REED | December 15, 2020

One-time use bottles of beer, wine and soda could be eliminated if Caren McNamara has her way.

Companies stopped reusing bottles on a large scale basis in the United States in the mid-1900s when consumer preferences changed, making recycling less attractive. Now they are rethinking that business model, knowing that reusable bottles is cost efficient.

“We will be the first to market with a refillable bottle,” McNamara, founder and CEO of Conscious Container, said. “Refillable glass bottle when designed as one can have 15 to 25 turns. It really depends on how it is designed. The heavier the bottle the more turns it can take.”

Under a three-month pilot program that began in the North Bay on Nov. 23, Conscious Container will sell, collect and wash bottles from two brands of Anheuser-Busch beer. Each bottle will be stamped “refillable” and have a QR code for tracing.

Non-alcoholic beverages are in the long-term plans for being refillable.

Bottles that meet the quality standards will be refilled with product and recirculated an additional time.

McNamara plans to open a bottle washing plant next to Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Cloverdale that likely will cost between $7 million and $10 million. Hundreds of people being paid a livable wage could be employed by Conscious Container. Right now, the company is a team of five people working out of Sonoma, the North Lake Tahoe area, and Reno, with the intention most will relocate to the North Bay.

“We need to be in a location where we have large volumes of bottles. We need millions of bottles through the facility to be profitable,” McNamara explained. Being in the middle of California’s Wine Country ensures there will be a continuous need for bottles. Plus, there are multiple breweries in the region.

Her goal is to have an array of businesses that want to use reusable bottles be on board by the second quarter of 2021, as well as have the bottle collection infrastructure in place. Bottles from 12 ounces to 750 milliliters will be able to be washed at the future facility.

Until Conscious Container gets its wash center operating, which could be in 2022, the company intends to contract with washing plants in Washington and Montana to handle bottles recycled under the program. The company eventually plans to expand not only to other breweries but wineries.

Giving back your bottles

These Sonoma County retailers stock the specially marked bottles of Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Organic and Elysian Space Dust IPA:

• Whole Foods

• Safeway

• Target

The seven independently-owned stores participating as drop-off and collection locations:

• Wilibees Wine & Spirits in Santa Rosa

• Wilibees Wine & Spirits in Petaluma

• Dahlia & Sage Community Market in Cloverdale

• Campus Market in Santa Rosa

• A & L Market in Rohnert Park

• Novato U Save Liquors in Novato

• Bret Harte Super Market in San Rafael

Looking for money

McNamara’s focus now is on attracting capital in order to further the business. She has applied for a $500,000 grant from CalRecycle. Conscious Container has raised $1.5 million in seed money. Anheuser-Busch is funding the pilot after Conscious Container ran successful smaller programs in Reno and Truckee.

“Returnable glass is an integral part of our DNA at Anheuser-Busch InBev who currently operates the world’s largest returnable bottle supply chain. This has been going on since we began using glass bottles over 100 years ago,” Angie Slaughter, vice president of sustainability at Anheuser-Busch, said. “In 2018, we launched the 100+ Accelerator program to invest in and grow startups that solve our most pressing sustainability challenges. Over the past two years, we have accelerated 36 startups across 15 different countries. During the nine-month program, we provide mentorship, training and, most importantly, up to $100,000 to pilot within our supply chain to prove the viability of their solution.”

Anheuser-Busch reuses bottles in Mexico, Canada, Europe, Brazil and South Africa. Other companies, like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, also are refilling bottles in other countries. However, it is no longer a popular concept in the United States. Anheuser-Busch said it discounted its reusable bottle program in the United States in the 1900s and then again in the early 2000s.

According to the EPA, three-quarters of glass bottles purchased in the United States are not reused in any manner, including being recycled. In 2018, 7.6 million tons of glass containers ended up in a landfill.

“It is our hope that by kicking off this partnership with Conscious Container, we can take the next step in addressing the issue of glass in landfills,” Slaughter said. “Our goal is to have 100% of our packaging to be made from majority recycled content or to be returnable by 2025.”

Local support

Peter Kruger, owner of Dahlia & Sage Community Market in Cloverdale, has been working with McNamara on the refillable bottle concept for more than three years. He would like to wave a magic wand to immediately have the business operating at full speed.

Kruger is also the chief operating officer at Bear Republic. Having Conscious Container lease land next door would be a natural fit, he said, especially with the brewery having an extensive wastewater treatment plant on site.

“Glass is one of the most refillable materials on the planet. We had this program set up 30 or 40 years ago, then we moved to a single-use container model and it is just not sustainable,” Kruger said.

Kruger’s store sells Straus milk from Marshall in reusable bottles; and he believes other companies should be doing the same.

McNamara knows her vision is not revolutionary; that reusing bottles is happening other places in the world. She wants it to become the norm again in the United States, and even hopes Conscious Container would become the model for others.

“The infrastructure it the challenge. That is the problem Conscious Container is solving,” the 60-year-old entrepreneur said. “Our business model reflects we can do that profitably and it is scalable because there are multiple infrastructures we can tap into.”

In the pilot are 16,000 specially labeled bottles of Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold and Elysian Space Dust IPA. The goals are to collect 50% of them, wash and inspect each bottle that is returned, with the ability to refill them if the integrity of the bottle passes inspection.

Consumer cooperation

At his store, Kruger is looking to see “how the mechanics work to get bottles back and see what consumer reaction is.” McNamara is also using the pilot to get consumer feedback. In the pilot, consumers can drop off the bottles at a variety of locations.

Working to get state law changed when it comes to California Redemption Value regulations is being talked about. Today, every bottle that is returned for cash has to be crushed in order to avoid fraud. Because Conscious Container has the “processor” designation is can collect CRV bottles, and take them out of state to be washed, and then reused, according to McNamara

The company could pay the consumer to return those bottles. With shipped wine bottles, it’s possible to include a special tote for returning the refillable bottles. Getting California to install reverse vending machines where bottles can be returned is another idea. This is something Oregon and Europe employs.

Zero Waste Sonoma is working to get the word out about the pilot program. The joint powers authority for the unincorporated areas and nine cities and towns in Sonoma County recently started a Reuse Coalition. This group has been a strong advocate for Conscious Container. Sloane Pagal, program manager for Zero Waste Sonoma, said in the waste hierarchy, reusing bottles is of higher priority than recycling.

Multiple benefits

McNamara says when a system like Conscious Container is fully operational, the carbon footprint for a bottle can be reduced by 95%. “Thirty percent of carbon dioxide in one bottle is just in the container alone,” she said. Once the business is fully operational, greenhouse gases will be tracked.

Kruger explained that creating beer is a fraction of the final cost. The bottle, he said, can be two to three times the expense of what’s inside of it. “If we are able to reuse the bottle, it will drive down the cost of beer. If we can reuse bottles, it is a way to do something for the planet.”

For the wine industry, an added cost to using reusable bottles could be the need for washable labels. On the beer side the glass will be a bit more expensive because it will need to be heavier. McNamara acknowledges cost savings for those bottling the product will take time to be realized.

For Anheuser-Busch, the cost factor is something the company is analyzing during the pilot. Slaughter said factors influencing the cost, carbon footprint, and waste include these:

  • The loss rate of reusable bottles. Reusable bottles are heavier and more expensive than current single-use glass bottles, so if you only get one use from the returnable bottle, you are losing money and producing more waste with a returnable bottle.
  • The distance the reusable bottle is shipped from consumer collection to the bottle washer. Reverse logistics can become prohibitively expensive and carbon intensive if you are shipping glass bottles a long distance.
  • The design of the bottle. Heavier bottles can be reused more often, which decreases the cost of the bottle each time it is reused. However, if consumers don’t return that bottle often enough, it makes more sense to use a lighter bottle designed for fewer refills/reuses