Den finger through the flap, pull once and: hiss! This Friday, 85 years ago, the beer from the can celebrated its premiere. On January 24, 1935, Gottfried Krueger launched the first barley juice in tinplate packaging in America. The brewer who had immigrated from Germany wanted to expand, and the cans were ideal for this because they could be stacked well on trucks. With one load, the “Krueger Breweries” were able to transport almost twice as much barley juice into the shops and pubs as in the good old glass bottle.
With the Krueger original, the can, which only found its way to Germany in the 1950s, only has the outer shape in common. His invention initially weighed around 100 grams of tinplate. Today, a 0.33 liter aluminum can weighs just twelve grams, says Stephan Rösgen, managing director of the beverage can forum in Cologne. Around 3.5 billion cans were sold in Germany in 2018, an increase of 23 percent. Rösgen estimates that it should have been more than four billion pieces in the past year: “The trend continues to rise.”
Greens call for “steering tax”
The German brewers are of course proud that they still sell their beer predominantly in glass bottles. “The reusable share is still stable at over 80 percent – a rate that no other industry can achieve,” emphasizes a spokesman for the Brauer Association. But he expects the beer can’s market share to increase over the next few years. The fast-growing craft breweries in particular are discovering the can for themselves, consumers, especially from single households, are increasingly asking for it, and retailers are happy to put the space-saving containers on their shelves. Almost 9 percent of the barley juice was canned in 2018, compared to 8.4 percent across all beverages, the market research institute Nielsen has determined.
At its peak in 2002, more than seven billion beverage cans were sold in Germany. Then the deposit on disposable packaging came – and the fate of the can seemed sealed: its sales fell to only 300 million pieces because practically all major retail chains banished the can. Only after the introduction of a simplified take-back system did it gradually start to rise again. Does history repeat itself? The can is frowned upon by many environmentalists because of the high energy consumption for the aluminum. In addition, their renaissance contradicts the desire of Berlin politicians to bring the sharply reduced reusable share back up. The Greens are already calling for an additional “incentive tax” on environmentally harmful one-way packaging.
Cans instead of PET bottles?
Opinions differ on the ecological pros and cons of the can. Rösgen from the Beverage Can Forum not only emphasizes the more climate-friendly transport. “99 percent of all cans are recycled. And what is recycled conserves resources and the environment, ”says the can lobbyist. According to Rösgen, critics often rely on outdated life cycle assessments, which also completely ignore carbon dioxide savings in the production process. One of the largest recycling plants is located in Neuss.
The aluminum group Hydro processes 40,000 tons of beverage cans there every year into new products. The energy requirement is only 5 percent of the production of primary aluminum, says a spokesman. “An empty can can be recycled, shaped and filled back on the shop shelf just 60 days later.” For the aluminum manufacturer, this is an “excellent example of a functioning circular economy”. Even because plastics are increasingly discredited, Hydro is convinced that the can still has the best years ahead. The first bottlers have already started to replace PET bottles with aluminum cans.