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11 July, 2008

Why don't supermarkets and brewers do more for the environment?

The seed of this column was planted a while ago, when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was

address ing the Tesco AGM, arguing for an improvement in the conditions in which its cheapest chickens are raised

- which he says will add only a small amount to their cost (perhaps 10p). Tesco claims this would add around 50% (about a quid) to the cost of their cheapest chickens.

Hearing this on the radio, my partner suggested that, instead of increasing the cost of a chicken by a pound, why not add a pound to the price of a case of beer and divert the excess profits

to chicken welfare? After I'd finished my usual tirade against the big players and their suspiciously low-price beer deals, stopped foaming at the mouth, and cleaned up all the broken crockery, I actually thought about the idea, and you know what? The harder I look, the less fault I see with it.

If only the supermarkets could see things the same way - but you only have to look at their approach to other environmental issues to see the problem.

For example, how is it that some things I bring home from the supermarket are marked "all packaging is non-recyclable"? How on earth has this product come to market in the UK, in packaging that was destined for landfill from the moment it was conceived

At home, we recycle the fairly limited amount of material

our local council can handle. At work, we have just started a trial recycling paper and cardboard - boy, are they in for a shock when they see our weekly cardboard output. At home, I amass empty beer bottles at an alarming rate, but they all get rinsed and thrown in the bottle bank. Interestingly, with the majority of the Belgian beers

we buy, the bottles are sent back to Belgium, to the same brewery, via the importer. But beer bottles from breweries only 20 or 30 miles away are non-returnable. I've spoken to various people about this

and the issue is, of course, complicated. Let's have a look at the complications:

"It's a hygiene issue." That's true, but all bottles are cleaned and rinsed before filling anyway. What would another step in the process add?

"But it would increase water consumption, which is ecologically unsound." Sure, but beer production is pretty water-intensive anyway, using anything from three to 10 pints of water

to produce a pint of beer - someone can solve the problem of the extra wash.

"But glass isn't a perfect medium, it gets scuffed as it goes through the bottling line." That's true, as the Belgian and German beers

we sell demonstrate, and do you know what? No one cares. The

bottles wear these scuffs with pride, and what counts is the liquid inside.

"Logistically it's difficult to get the bottles back." Well, when I take delivery of a load of beers, the wagon usually drives away with nothing in it - why not fill the space with returnable bottles?

It's surprising that, in an industry full of clever, inspiring, creative individuals, whose work is part science and part artistry, more attention isn't paid to this issue. If we can get full bottles from A to B, then what's so hard about getting empty ones back to A again?

Sure, Adnams' carbon neutral East Green is a benchmark in eco-beer, but in an industry that combines tradition and innovation so seamlessly, has everyone forgotten the refundable pop bottle?




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