The Bar World Looks Beyond Feel-Good Measures on Sustainability and Climate Change - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Bar World Looks Beyond Feel-Good Measures on Sustainability and Climate Change

It was the turtle heard round the world.

On August 10, 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener uploaded a video to YouTube of a colleague on a boat helping a sea turtle in distress. Dripping blood and visibly in pain, the turtle wrestles and whimpers for eight excruciating minutes while a human equipped with needle-nose pliers attempts to free a blockage from its nasal cavity. Four minutes in, Figgener and her team realize the blockage isn’t natural: “Don’t tell me it’s a freaking straw,” we hear Figgener lament behind the camera. The scientists tug at the straw; the turtle winces in agony. It’s impossible to watch without cringing. After innumerable failed attempts, the scientists yank out a twisted, weathered piece of plastic as long as a human finger. In a moment of triumphant catharsis, the turtle leaps back into the water. We’re left on the boat to sit with our shame over our role in the animal’s suffering.

The turtle didn’t kick off activism to reduce single-use plastic straw waste, but it was the movement’s seminal moment. The original video has been viewed more than 40 million times, not counting re-uploads and screenshots. Seemingly overnight, bars began to ditch the plastic straw. Ocean cleanup groups won public praise. Major cities and multinational corporations enacted straw bans.

A victory for the planet, right? More like a drop in the ocean. Out of the 150 million metric tons of plastic waste polluting our seas, less than 1 percent comes from plastic straws.

The Turtle and the Straw is a revealing parable of how environmental activism often plays out in the United States. Find a visible yet superficial form of waste, shame individuals who partake in it, and enact a clumsy policy with minimal impact that ignores the systemic realities of the climate crisis. In a country that’s always positioned environmental protection as an individual’s responsibility—notice how “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” is aimed at the American consumer—we shouldn’t be surprised.

But it also showed that the passion is there. We all want to save the turtles, promote sustainability, and reduce the harm of climate change, and the bar and spirits industry is no exception. You’d be hard pressed to find a major portfolio or up-and-coming brand that doesn’t have a commitment to sustainability published somewhere. So what does real, impactful sustainability look like in the cocktail world, and what will it take for us to get there? To start, we’re going to need some new Rs—Rs with a lot more teeth.

Repurpose When Jennifer Colliau was the bar director of The Perennial in San Francisco (now closed), every inch of her bar was designed with sustainability in mind, from highlighting climate-conscious producers to distilling cocktail flavorings from spent citrus peels. Even the ice machines went green: Conventional designs waste about 50 percent of the water they take in as drainage, she says. Instead, Colliau used pebble ice machines (like what you get at a Sonic drive-in) that result in less than 10 percent wasted water.

Yet for all the efficiencies gained at her bar, the most wasteful parts of the business stood outside her grasp. “Fossil fuels and transportation are a primary emissions issue [for bars],” she says. If you want to tackle waste and emissions at your bar, Colliau explains, you can’t just look at what’s happening in your bar; you also need to account for how supplies arrive at your door and what happens to waste after it leaves. “I would have loved to have spirits available in refillable kegs that take packaging out of the waste stream. Even if the bottles get recycled”—and most of them don’t, more on that in a minute—“recycling takes energy.”

Though you can recycle glass forever, it is heavy and emissions-intensive to transport. Breweries (and, increasingly, wineries) have long addressed this with kegs and bulk containers that distributors pick up and return to the source for refills. Even if distillers were interested in taking this approach, they currently can’t. According to Colliau, the federal government forbids distilled spirits from being packaged in anything larger than a 1.75 liter bottle. What’s more, legacy laws from America’s bathtub gin days prevent businesses from refilling an empty liquor bottle with more spirit—even the exact same brand. “People tend to get wrapped up in small, low effort details where individuals can be shamed rather than large systemic issues that require legislative action to actually change,” Colliau says. “We have this tendency to put the blame on individuals, but we’re looking at a national economic issue—because of this capitalist system. Most businesses only change practices to more sustainable methods when shamed publicly, not because it’s the right thing to do.”

The individualist ethos of American recycling gives producers of wasteful packaging a free pass on the responsibility to ensure that packaging is recycled. Building a network for distillers or distributors to pick up empty bottles or refillable kegs is expensive—impossibly so for small operators, unlikely to succeed in large corporate board rooms. With a groundswell of public support, Colliau suspects local municipalities could start making changes in the right direction. But the issue is far less visible to the public eye than plastic straws.

“There’s a model called industrial ecology,” says Roberto Serralles, vice president of business development and corporate affairs at Don Q, a rum distillery in Puerto Rico. “You try to turn every waste stream into something of use.” Serralles was hired by Don Q as a consultant in 2001 when he was doing doctoral research in environmental studies. Don Q has been family owned for six generations, and management keeps an eye on the long view; when Serralles joined the company full-time in 2004, his first job was to help figure out what to do with the 250,000 gallons of wastewater (now 350,000) the distillery produced each day.

Over the years, he and a team at the distillery MacGuyvered a system inspired by breweries and waste treatment plants that use bacteria to consume the organic solids in wastewater. The bacteria produce methane—a biogas—that can be used as an alternative fuel to power Don Q’s boilers, which Serralles says can reduce the distillery’s reliance on conventional fuels for their boiler by 50 percent when they’re operational. The resulting water is purified enough to restore the local aquifer with irrigation.

Serralles is justifiably proud of his system, but he’s not ready to put up a “mission accomplished” banner yet. “Sustainability is not a destination,” he says, “it’s a commitment to figure out a better way of doing things.” Impurities in his harvested biogas are causing corrosion issues in his boiler, so he’s researching workarounds. He’s also talking with local organizations about potential ways to turn some of Don Q’s waste into industrial compost. When discussing sustainability practices, he’s quick to get into the economics, not just the ecological benefits. “We have to put a value to these externalities, the value of clean air, clean water. We haven’t developed a cohesive way of thinking about them so they can be incorporated into our economic equations.”

Serralles’ wastewater system demanded significant time, money, and expertise to implement, but it now allows the distillery to operate not just more cleanly, but at a higher capacity and with lower fuel costs. Which is the challenge for building any kind of sustainability protocol: It demands a level of investment that’s not always possible in poorer regions or on smaller scales.

Colliau is also the founder of Small Hand Foods, a producer of cocktail syrups. As a manufacturer, she has to reckon with her own waste stream. Making a batch of her pineapple gum syrup results in roughly 2,000 pounds of pineapple pulp that she’s contracted a commercial compost and recycling firm to haul away. She says she’s had offers from well-meaning people to pick up that waste for local compost, but not at the regular frequency she’d need to run a specialty cocktail business rather than an organic compost supply. “I would love to see robust recycling and composting facilities throughout the country where actual people could have access,” she says. “A lot of the hurdles are regulatory.”

RestoreIn the sugarcane fields at Novo Fogo, a cachaça producer in Brazil, workers know it’s time to harvest when the temperature drops a few degrees, a natural precursor to the cane accumulating all the sugar it can. According to founder and CEO Dragos Axinte, that temperature drop reliably hit in March back in 2010. Now it occurs between April and July, with little warning. (Remember that in the Southern Hemisphere, seasons are flipped from the North.) It was obvious from the distillery’s founding, he says, that sustainability must be an integral part of the business. “It was done from a level of necessity and righteousness.”

Novo Fogo is certified organic and claims to be a carbon-negative operation. Axinte says they achieve the latter in part by repurposing waste by-products, repopulating Brazilian forests with threatened native trees, and by participating in carbon offset programs abroad. They work with a company called Native that funnels corporate investment into reforestation projects or renewable energy initiatives that allow a business to “bank” an amount of recovered greenhouse gases against their own emissions. One recent Novo Fogo project funded a waste management facility in Seneca, New York, that converts methane emissions from trash into electricity.

But Axinte is dreaming bigger. Beginning with a new higher-proof cachaça for bars and eventually the full product line, Novo Fogo plans to offset carbon not just for its own emissions, he says, but for their entire supply chain. “We’re in the middle: Upstream are suppliers sending us corks, cases, and bottles, and they have their own production and freight emissions resulting in their carbon footprint. Then downstream there’s the whole distribution network with its own pollution.” By mapping modes of transportation and travel distances, as well as estimating emissions from production, Axinte says he and his team have arrived at approximations of the carbon footprint of their vendors and customers. They’re also in the process of launching a training program called Bar Zero, which will teach participating members of the bar industry how to calculate their own carbon footprints and reduce their own emissions at their workplaces. “Getting someone started is the biggest hurdle,” Axinte says. “Then the positivity spreads.”

However, carbon offsets aren’t a silver bullet. The United Nations Environment Program warns against considering them a “get out of jail free card,” in large part because they encourage the world’s worst polluters to buy a modicum of public goodwill without doing the hard work of reducing their own emissions in the first place. It’s difficult to purchase offsets that positively impact the particular region where you’re causing environmental damage, and even seemingly benign projects like reforestation must be managed with care, so as not to introduce new monocultures that disrupt a local ecosystem or make it susceptible to future disease. But offsets are a valuable tool, and a means of making large-scale polluters take responsibility for their own emissions.

Sometimes the only way to protect the climate from the thirsty throats of American drinkers is to shut off the faucet. This is the dilemma assistant general manager Noah Arenstein will wrestle with every time he pours a shot of wild agave mezcal at Casa Playa at the Wynn in Las Vegas, scheduled to open in September. “The wild agave stock is diminishing, there’s no way around it,” he says. “And sure, some people are replanting varieties that used to be considered difficult or impossible to cultivate, but at some point that muddles the question of what ‘wild’ even means.”

As the demand for rare agave spirits booms in the U.S., the future of wild agave in Mexico is threatened, along with the ecosystem and indigenous economies those plants support. Agave can take decades to mature and only flowers once before it dies; harvesting the plant beforehand means that the next generation of agave must come from clonal cultivars or existing seed stock. The result is fast-dwindling genetic diversity, which drastically increases the likelihood of disease wiping out a whole population. “With tequila, pretty much all the agave are clones, so we’re just one outbreak away from something bad,” Arenstein continues.“ Mezcal is a comfortable distance behind tequila, but there’s always that upward pressure to produce more.”

Arenstein says he only buys agave spirits from producers whose practices he can verify through his own detective work, and the majority of his mezcal sales is espadin, a variety that matures quickly and is relatively easy to grow sustainably. When he opens a bottle of rare wild agave mezcal, he makes sure customers understand the rarity of what they’re drinking. “In Vegas, scarcity is what makes the sale, like an ortolan,” a type of small bird so prized as a delicacy in France that its populations have dropped dangerously low. “I can say, ‘This is one of 100 bottles made from a plant that took 20 years to mature.’ It’s troubling, but it allows me to talk about the whole spectrum. I may be pouring espadin all night and then this will be the last drink of the night. It becomes a different mentality.”

When shopping for tequila and mezcal, it pays to keep an eye out for the Bat Friendly label, an industry certification among producers who commit to letting at least 5 percent of their agave stock to flower and go to seed, ensuring friendly pollinators like bats can help produce a new generation of genetically healthy agave. But considering global demand for mezcal is estimated to grow 14 percent by 2027, one of the most impactful ways for bars and distributors to protect this ancestral spirit may be to leave it alone.

Regulate“We believe we can shop our way around problems when we should really be putting the onus on producers that are extracting resources to create profit,” says Maggie Campbell, a sustainability-minded distiller and the founder of Half Pint Co-Creation, a spirits industry consultancy. “If a huge company wants to cut their water use by 5 percent, that could possibly be the equal of thousands of households.”

The way Campbell sees it, it’s unreasonable to expect individual consumers to correct the large-scale environmental damage of corporate producers. Beyond the discussion of who’s responsible, most consumers don’t have the necessary perspective to understand the supply-chain linchpins that contribute most directly to the climate crisis. “People see packaging, so there’s lots of talk about packaging,” Campbell says, “but not much consideration of how your boiler is powered. What’s visible is often what gets addressed, even if there are bigger implications that go unseen.”

If the spirits industry is to meaningfully move the needle on its carbon emissions and environmental damage, we can’t rely on individual action or consumer demand. The root issues are too buried from public attention, the supply chains too distant from a customer’s dollar. Bold, sweeping regulatory changes are a necessity.

There’s no shortage of systemic approaches possible through greater regulation. In Germany and Switzerland, 90 percent of glass products are recycled; in the U.S., that figure is a paltry 27 percent, in large part due to our mixed-material recycling standards that lead to lower collection costs but also far lower efficiency. Requiring large producers and distributors to develop the infrastructure to pick up empty bottles from bars for refills is an achievable reality with the right support. So is changing liquor laws to allow for larger refillable kegs that would significantly cut waste and transportation emissions. Purchasing carbon offsets could become the standard for distillers, rather than the exception. Robust composting programs in major cities could convert the literal tons of organic waste produced by a single bar or restaurant in a month into valuable fertilizer, further reducing American agricultural dependency on chemical alternatives.

“It’s good that liquor brands are making sustainability goals for 2040 or 2050,” says Josh Terrill, the managing editor of 86 Waste, a nonprofit organization in Boston aimed at deepening discussions of waste and sustainability in the spirit and hospitality industries. “It’s a time-honored marketing tactic.” The Scotch Whisky Association, for instance, recently committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 through a combination of measures including wastewater/biofuel processing similar to Roberto Serralles’ system at Don Q; transporting product via rail instead of trucking; and carbon offsets. But current estimates put average global temperatures at a 3.6 degrees F increase by then, well into the danger zone that climate scientists warned us about decades ago. “There needs to be a metric of accountability,” Terrill continues. “An individualist mandate is built into American culture, and recycling fits right into that. God forbid we make a corporation accountable for it.”

Beyond federal regulation, Terrill and 86 Waste co-founder Nick Korn believe that trade organizations like the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) could play an important role in that accountability. The council has already set encouraging goals around reducing drunk driving and not marketing spirits to children. “DISCUS holds suppliers to a higher level than what is legally required,” Korn says. Last November, the council announced it was forming a sustainability working group to collaborate on ways to reduce fossil fuel use, waste, and water. The jury is out on the impact of this initiative, but the prospect of collaboration is a beginning. “Structural change is necessary to fix any of these problems,” Korn continues. “Otherwise we’re putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.”

Redistribute (the means of production)There’s a tendency in certain well-meaning sustainability discussions to make climate change a strict matter of math: this much greenhouse gas contributes to that much global warming, so these are the numerical benchmarks we need to hit on emissions and waste. It’s the kind of logic that makes buying carbon offsets so appealing, but it ignores the complicated realities of who is actually doing the work to achieve our collective climate goals.

One of the most effective weapons in the cocktail industry’s fight against climate change is investing in the people who are most closely tied to the land and the spirits we all enjoy. “Spirits and sustainability don’t start in distillation,” says Jahdé Marley, a sommelier who works in wine and spirits distribution and is the co-founder of the Ideal Bartender Collective, a mentorship and networking program that works toward upward mobility for people of color in the bar industry. “They begin with the land and the people. Working people down to the bone, with no professional development or promotion, is not sustainable.”

Marley (and other sources interviewed for this article) applaud unionization efforts like those at Jamaica’s Worthy Park Estate that guarantee worker protections. “We can’t ignore that the global spirits industry is still very much a reflection of slavery and colonialism,” she says. “If you allow room for promotion, financial stability, and healthy work, that all feeds into the health of the company with far less turnover.”

The way Marley, Maggie Campbell, and other climate activists put it, improving working conditions and building pathways to senior management among a distillery’s local population isn’t just a matter of justice, past and present. It’s also about turning local stakeholders—the people most affected by climate change, and least responsible for its causes—into decision makers who can most directly address the needs of their region. “The reason French wines are so good is that growers are thinking 100 years out,” Marley says. What else could we accomplish if we also took that long view tomorrow?

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