Plastic Beer Bottles and Rowdy Football Fans—What the Future Holds




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Bad calls. Beer. Unhappy fans. Beer. Plastic beer bottles. Beer. Combined, they don’t make up a recipe for peace on earth and good will toward man.

In the aftermath of recent bottle-throwing incidents in Cleveland and New Orleans, at least one National Football League team already announced that it will no longer sell beer in plastic bottles.

Karen Proctor, associate professor and chair of packaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology, explains what’s behind the switch from glass to plastic bottles—and will it last?

  • Soft drinks and water have been sold in plastic bottles for years, but it’s only within the past three years that beer has been sold in plastic bottles in the United States, a trend that originated in Europe in part to cut serving time in concession lines. Here’s why: it takes less time to hand a customer a bottle than to fill a cup. For that reason, beer sold in plastic bottles has been popular in specialty venues such as stadiums, festivals and casinos.

  • Despite popularity with vendors, though, plastic-bottled brew has not gained widespread acceptance from consumers, retailers and even many brewers, so glass bottles preferred by beer drinkers won’t soon become extinct, Proctor says.

    "Compared to beverages sold in glass bottles and cans—and this includes soft drinks as well as beer—those sold in plastic containers have shorter shelf lives," Proctor says. "In short, they lose their fizz much quicker."

  • Changing from glass to plastic containers can be costly for bottlers, making it unlikely that smaller brewers, faced with equipment-upgrade costs in the millions of dollars, will make the switch. Further, plastic-bottle recycling handling costs can exceed the return value of raw materials.

  • Retailers, such as supermarket operators, aren’t eager to sell beer in plastic bottles because of already-overcrowded shelf space.

  • These factors combined with future safety considerations will override timesaving benefits, eliminating the availability of partially-full plastic "missiles" at sporting events, Proctor predicts.

    Of course, the backlash against plastic beer bottles won’t mean a return to selling beer in glass bottles, a practice banned from stadiums years ago. Rather, thanks to football fans in Cleveland and New Orleans, expect to see more plastic cups . . . and longer concession lines.

    Professor Proctor is available for additional comment. Contact Mike Saffran, senior news specialist, at (585) 475-5697 or mjsuns@rit.edu. Note: RIT’s packaging science program is one of only seven in the United States.