Photos: Josh Blaylock of Blaylock Photography

Miller and Coors have been household names in the American beer brewing industry for more than a century. But the reputation of these operations goes beyond the beer they produce.

The two companies, which merged to become MillerCoors in 2008, both have a long history of doing business sustainably, from Bill Coors, who made the aluminum can a main staple for the beverage industry, to the current employees, who have developed aggressive programs to reduce waste.

In February, the Chicago-headquartered company achieved a major milestone when its Fort Worth, Texas, brewery achieved landfill-free status. It was the last of MillerCoors’ eight major breweries to earn the title.

“We are committed to finding innovative ways to build on our heritage of brewing high-quality beer sustainably. It is one of our driving priorities in creating America’s best beer company,” said Gavin Hattersley, MillerCoors CEO, when the news was announced. “We didn’t reach this milestone overnight nor can we attribute success to one department, one brewery or one employee. The entire MillerCoors family is committed to ensuring a sustainable future for our company and the communities in which we work and live.”

RESPONSIBLE ROOTS

When parent companies SABMiller and Molson Coors came together in 2008 to form the U.S. joint venture MillerCoors, it was a match made in sustainability heaven. As Kim Marotta, MillerCoors director of sustainability describes it, “When you bring a company like a Miller Brewing Company and Coors Brewing Company together, you brought two companies that had really longstanding commitment to sustainability.”

One example of that commitment to sustainability is of Bill Coors, grandson of Coors founder Adolph Coors. Bill Coors is credited with helping to pioneer the invention of the aluminum can. A little more than 50 years ago, Bill Coors, who will turn 100 in August, was frustrated by seeing steel beer cans with the Coors name on it strewn about in the trash and set out to do something about it.

“He worked with some of the engineers at Coors Brewing Company to help design an aluminum can,” says Marotta. He didn’t stop there, however. He took the designs and plans and shared it with his competitors as well as with the beverage industry, including big names like Coca-Cola.

“He wanted to make sure that everyone in the beverage industry could use the aluminum can and recycle it,” says Marotta. “He also gave a penny back for every Coors can that came back to the Coors brewery, so he not only pioneered the aluminum can, but he also started the recycling revolution.”

She references a quote from Bill Coors, “Waste is a resource out of place.” She says Coors Brewing Co. was committed to recycling, reducing and reusing waste long before it was commonplace for corporations to focus on these types of efforts.

Frederick Miller’s legacy of starting the Milwaukee brewing craze with Miller Brewing Co., and strong sense of responsibility to the community and the environment is also evident in the combined operations today.

“These great founders had longstanding commitments to water efficiency, recycling and other investments in local communities,” says Marotta. “Bringing those two types of companies together, you do have a lot of synergies and things that are just the fabric of the companies for so long that we can use as a foundation to improve and enhance.”

The two companies today make up 16 locations in the U.S., with eight major breweries from coast to coast and have 8,000 employees.

Coors operated major breweries in Golden, Colorado and Elkton, Virginia, while Miller operated six major breweries in Fort Worth, Texas; Irwindale, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Trenton, Ohio; and Albany, Georgia. The joint venture allowed for some immediate environmental benefits when it came to transportation.

“One of the really great sustainability benefits right from the beginning was reducing our carbon emissions transportation and fuel costs by bringing our companies together.”

In addition to eight major breweries, MillerCoors also owns cans and ends and glass plants in Colorado; the craft breweries Blue Moon in Denver, Colorado, and Leinenkugel, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; and Watertown Hops, a hops company based in Watertown, Wisconsin.

Because both companies already had rich history of reducing waste within their operations, when the two companies came together as one, they wanted to map out a strategy moving forward, Marotta says, “It made a lot of sense that sustainability was one of our key strategies for MillerCoors because it was just part of our DNA and part of our culture, so in 2008, we were able to put forth a sustainability strategy for MillerCoors.”

WINNING STRATEGY

The company’s sustainability strategy was part of an overall strategy it developed called Winning in Beer, which set goals to 2015 around the environment, social responsibility, people and the community.

“It was a good foundation to move forward and we’ve been able to expand with 2020 goals as we have moved into the future,” says Marotta.

In 2008, one of the goals MillerCoors set was around waste. By 2015 the company wanted to reduce its waste by 15 percent of the current level. MillerCoors surpassed its goal nearly six fold. “We were actually able to reduce the waste going to landfill 89 percent,” Marotta says. That amounts to 90 million additional pounds of waste from 2008 to 2015 that did not go to landfill.

Marotta says that part of Bill Coors legacy of “waste being a resource out of place,” includes finding beneficial reuses for waste. Spent grains left over after the brewing process are reused in cattle feed and spent yeast goes to pet food and soup companies that can reuse the yeast in their products. Aluminum, glass, plastic scrap and wastewater are all beneficially reused.

“When we first got started with this goal, we thought that 15 percent was in the ballpark,” notes Marotta. But one employee in particular, Kelly Harris, who worked at the Trenton Brewery, decided the facility could do better.

The Trenton Brewery was already recycling 90 percent of its waste, but Harris was sure it could do better. He put together a plan to make it easier to recycle using color-coated bins for glass, cans and cardboard. It also involved looking in dumpsters and seeing what materials were going to the landfill that could have been recycled or reused. Marotta says Harris was responsible for changing the culture so people were putting effort into recycling.

“By changing the process and changing the culture, Trenton became the first brewery in 2009 to become landfill-free operations,” says Marotta.

CATCHING ON

Once the Trenton Brewery became landfill free, Marotta says other breweries were inspired to do the same. Harris was put in charge of special projects and traveled to other breweries so they could implement similar strategies. In 2013, the Albany and Golden breweries became landfill free. In 2014, the Milwaukee Brewery, its corporate offices and some of the cans and ends plants also earned landfill-free status. In 2015, the Fort Worth Brewery became the last of the company’s eight large breweries to be landfill free.

At the Milwaukee Brewery’s corporate offices, removing trash bins from individual offices saved 1,000 trash bags per day. The company also switched from using wood pallets to plastic pallets which have a much longer shelf life and are recycled in to pellets once they are no longer suitable for use. Centralized printers at the corporate office meant people didn’t print as much, and visitors are offered ceramic mugs and reusable water bottles instead of disposable bottles and cups.

In Fort Worth, Marotta says the new plant manager’s goal was to get the brewery to zero waste to landfill by the end of 2015. “Strong commitment from leadership gets people inspired and engaged and they respond,” she says.

The Fort Worth Brewery reduced its waste by 66 percent from 2014 to 2015. It engaged a Sustainability Employee Council to lead education initiatives throughout the facility. Anything that cannot be recycled or reused is sent to a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant in Oklahoma. “There is just some waste that can’t be recycled or put to beneficial reuse,” says Marotta, who notes it is less than one percent of materials.

WASTE-TO-ENERGY OPTIONS

The Fort Worth Brewery isn’t the only brewery that relies on WTE for the little amount of waste that it cannot recycle from its operations.

The Milwaukee Brewery sent its last load of waste to landfill in December 2014. That year the brewery found ways to eliminate 65 tons of waste previously sent to landfill each month, but it, too, still had a residual waste that it could not recycle. That material is sent to XCEL Energy in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which uses municipal solid waste to displace up to 20 percent of fossil fuel use in the production electricity for the community. Additionally, a MillerCoors brewery in Eden, North Carolina, uses woody waste as boiler fuel to generate biogas for the brewing process and offset the use of coal.

MillerCoors’ commitment to reducing waste goes beyond the solid form. As beer brewing is a water and energy intensive process, the company has worked to reduce the amount of water and energy it uses to brew its beer. It has been able to reduce its water consumption by 1.54 billion gallons since 2008 and reduced its carbon emissions by 16 percent in 2015.

Each brewery can use an estimated 1 million gallons of water per day in the brewing process and get additional usage from the brewery wastewater. Irwindale, California; Shenandoah, Virginia; Fort Worth, Texas; and Golden, Colorado, all operate digesters, some of which have been operating for 10 to 20 years. At Golden plant’s upflow anaerobic reactor, anaerobic bacteria to removes organic carbon from concentrated brewery waste.

“Because of the challenges of hauling off waste to treatment centers, we’ve found that the use of anaerobic digesters is the most efficient process for our sites,” says Marotta.

The Golden Brewery has partnered with a facility, owned by Merrick & Co., that produces 1 million gallons of ethanol per year from waste beer. Meanwhile, the Irwindale Brewery boasts the largest solar array of any U.S. brewery. Ten thousand solar panels on 10 acres of land produce 3.2 megawatts of electricity, enough power to produce 7 million cases of beer annually.

Marotta notes that, up until a few years ago, many brewing operations were still running on coal-fired boilers and that the biomass boiler in Shenandoah is a great opportunity. By early April, coal will be a thing of the past at MillerCoors.

“As we make those steps and continue to look for new opportunities in renewable energy from anaerobic digestion [to solar energy, biomass energy] and others, we are going to continue to push that needle,” says Marotta.

The author is editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be reached at ksmith@gie.net.