In June 2020, I created my own personal sport from litter picking in my local park. Creating data from detritus became a win for my analysis skills, a win for entertaining me during my morning walks and a journey into beer sustainability strategy. My key takeaways:
- Beer caps are everywhere and it is difficult to suggest they get recycled.
- Corona Extra is seeing a fantastic summer – by far the most popular brand.
- Beer brands are building sustainability strategies around the circular economy.
A widely reported positive impact of the “stay home” lockdown has been a reconnection with nature in residential areas. I have been a major benefactor of this impact. Gentle walks round my local park with a black coffee have replaced my commute.
Feeling guilty for not being as fitness-focused as my other 7am park-peers, I have instead rediscovered the details of nature: discovering the mighty male stag beetle, watching frogs smaller than a thumb nail hop for freedom and querying most of what I did not know on the iNaturalist app.
This daily routine with my partner has provided a neat framework for monitoring change. I have watched spring turn to summer. I noticed the London skyline become vivid due to an absence of air pollution. I witnessed an enforced lockdown transition into a more relaxed culture of park socialising.
Through these changes, and enhanced by my detail on nature, I have also witnessed the level of litter in the park rise considerably.
Discovering a world of micro-litter
Most litter is disposed of responsibly. The council has encouraged this via social media messaging, supplied bigger bins and staff are out clearing up debris before everyone else.
But look a bit closer at a patch of grass and you find a coral reef of micro-litter: items too small for the fingers of a litter picker or the prongs of the mower. I don’t think I’d noticed just how great an extent this was before.
Usual suspects emerge. Cigarette butts. Tissues. Those Swantex filter wrappings. The most diverse but common item though has been the beer bottle cap. Once you see one, they are just everywhere. Take a look at below:
How many did you see? Believe me or not, I found exactly 12 beer bottle caps in the area visible here. This is a high but not uncommon number.
Making up for a lack of sport
A bit frustrated by this, I decided to start litter picking more on the walks. After my first attempt I realised I had quite the colourful collection in my palm. For some reason, I decided I can do more than just dump them in the bin. I should make this into a little sport.
I began to take home pockets of beer caps for analysis. I wrote up the brands like a league table and tally who had performed the best and worst that day. I called it the Beer Cap Litter Championships and wondered if I could collect 1,000 beer caps in the summer?
I reached my 1,000 beer cap total in only 17 days. Admittedly, it was not all beer brands. Plenty of cider competitors in there, mainly the Swedish ones. But, I found some other random nuggets too.
Corona appears to be doing really well during the pandemic of its namesake, no brand damage there. Despite a range of 64 different brands found, Corona made up 18% of the caps found in South London, cementing its position as Beer Cap Litter Champion. I take this as a proxy for popularity but I of course do not know whether Corona drinkers are just especially likely to litter.
Guinness is enjoyed on park benches. Kopparberg and Rekorderlig ciders are best drunk in the middle of the highest field where there was the best view of the skyline. Heineken, Corona and Budweiser are sold in big cases.
Finally, measuring this can create quite fun datasets. As this was my surrogate sport during lockdown, I decided it appropriate to make it look like one. I converted the data into a bar chart race over time using Flourish. See for yourselves by clicking on the image below:
Beer and the environment: action or kicking the can down the road?
I did this project to help relieve a local environmental issue and this litter-picking game removed over 1,500 items of rubbish from parks in a few weeks. But, I also learned about the sustainability strategy of various beer brands. So, is the beer cap issue likely to be resolved by the corporates?
Some focus directly on litter picking. Corona, the most commonly discarded brand, has a litter picking promotion on its current packs. This won’t reduce my park problems though, as this is focused purely on UK beach cleans. To me, this feels like a fit for a brand also selling surfer-themed clothing from the same website.
Others look to the cause rather than the symptom. I was intrigued but not surprised to find how big a focus was on circular economy. AB InBev (Budweiser) delivers a 100+Accelerator programme for sustainable start ups. “Close the Loop” is a key theme with many developing returnable glass schemes worldwide. Asahi International (Peroni) has worked with students of the University of Cambridge to explore new reuse models. Heineken has encouraged its Bahamas’ brewery to recycle 90% of its materials.
But, nothing tangible on beer caps. Comprised of plastic and metal you have materials that, separate, are fantastic for recycling, but, stuck together, very difficult. Diageo (Guinness) has a commitment of 100% recyclable or reusable materials by 2020. Alas, I have not seen any mention of beer caps here.
To answer my question, I don’t think corporates will solve the beer cap litter problem soon. I found mixed levels of ambition, high levels of innovation but little on solving litter.
Perhaps, my dream of biodegradable beer caps that turn into beautiful flowers when dropped in my local park is a little unlikely any time soon. Until then, I will stick to making lagerphones, as suggested by twitter.*
*If anyone wants a load of beer caps, do let me know, please.