Pandemic Alcohol Sales Have Soared. But What Does That Mean For The Planet?
Wine bottle still life

Pandemic Alcohol Sales Have Soared. But What Does That Mean For The Planet?

Photograph by Tom Brannigan/Trunk Archive



Increased alcohol sales during the pandemic have led to a surge in residential waste. But where does all of it go? If your afternoon coffee has turned into a post-Zoom seltzer, you might want to refresh your recycling habits and check your excess.

Photograph by Tom Brannigan/Trunk Archive
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Chances are you don’t need a study to tell you that alcohol consumption rates have increased since the pandemic began. Even if you don’t drink, you’ve probably witnessed people eschew COVID-19 restrictions just to get a semblance of what it feels like to imbibe with friends. But soars in alcohol sales haven’t just caused concern for doctors—of the body and the mind—it’s cause for alarm for the planet, too.


In case you do want the facts: a study by Washington State University revealed one in four adults reported a change in alcohol use soon after lockdown orders were announced in March 2020, with 14 percent of the 900 people surveyed also reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety; a Tampere University study looked at pre-pandemic drinking habits of 1,308 Finnish workers compared to late-pandemic drinking habits and found that one fourth, or 25.37 percent, reported an increase in drinking; and scientists at the University of Southern California found that, between April and June last year, sales of alcoholic beverages increased by 34 percent compared to the same period in 2019.


So, if we’re buying more alcohol—whether as a temporary coping mechanism or to satisfy newfound career dreams as a sommelier—does that mean wine stores are benefitting at the potential expense of the environment? Like most conversations surrounding the pandemic and its effects on the planet, it’s fairly nuanced—a cause and effect relationship between how things were, how things are going, and how things will be. The wins are uneven but scientists agree: what felt like a really long, chaotic snow day at the start turned into its own public health crisis.


For starters, Michael Kaiser, vice president of government affairs of the National Association of American Wineries, insists there’s been an overall net decrease in pandemic wine sales. And it’s due to a number of factors: “In most places, winery tasting rooms had to close down, and in most cases, they are not operating where they were before the pandemic.” He concludes that what has been lost in revenue can be attributed to a decrease in events and tasting room visits.


Alternatively: With travel plans canceled, celebratory outings limited, and personal style negated by Zoom life, many consumers increased their wine budgets. Some stocked up more often where others splurged on $30+ bottles. According to market measurement firm Nielsen, the $25+ price tier grew 15.5 percent year-over-year and reported an estimated 150 percent volume growth year-over-year for the aforementioned $30+ wines in the six months after the pandemic hit in March.


Regardless of where it came from (online versus in-store) or how much we can afford (financed via stimulus or not), an increase in alcohol consumption leads to more waste. In an interview with Waste Today, Darrell Smith, president and CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), said residential waste collection has risen while commercial collection declined. He also mentioned that an overall decline in shipping containers might have been temporarily positive for the planet’s carbon emission levels, but that doesn’t mean waste collection centers won’t be faced with an onslaught of incoming waste in the near future. That also goes for states whose Bottle Bills—the believed recycling incentive system of returning empty deposit containers to retailers or redemption centers for refunds, while the cans and bottles are eventually recycled—were temporarily nullified.


In spring 2020, the Solid Waste Association of North America reported recycling levels to be 20 percent above normal. Today, it believes that number to be around 5 to 10 percent above average. That means recycling and solid waste centers are hurting, too.

Wine bottle still life
Photograph by Tom Brannigan/Trunk Archive

So, if your daily post-lunch slump antidote turned into your very own happy-hour, what can you do to ensure your habits aren’t as harmful to the planet as they are your liver? If you can’t reconcile with buying less, then buy better. And recycle even better than that. There are endless ways you can extend the immortal shelf life of a wine bottle, for example, that can’t be found on Pinterest or TikTok. And metals, like beer cans, are a nonrenewable resource—meaning they can’t be replaced as quickly as they’re used (which means they’re limited in supply). So, start with refreshing your local recycling knowledge.


For instance: Do you know how to recycle a wine cork? Cork is a totally natural, biodegradable, and renewable resource. Quercus suber, or cork oaks, are 100 percent sustainable: Layers of the tree bark are stripped off (without harming the tree) and turned into wine corks. Not a single tree, each of which can live up to 300 years, is cut down during cork extraction. Instead, bark is harvested by hand every nine to 12 years. So, when in doubt, compost your corks.


There are ways to shop more sustainably, too. Enter: organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. Organic wine means less reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and any other chemicals in the vineyard. Vines should be perfectly capable of regulating themselves whilst the vineyard will be healthier, as will the workers responsible for taking care of it. (However, crops are more susceptible to fungal diseases or pests.) Biodynamic wine is organic, but employs soil supplements prepared according to Rudolf Steiner’s formulas, too, including following a planting calendar that depends upon astrology and treating the Earth as “a living and receptive organism.” Natural wine actually doesn’t have a definition yet, but it can best be described as the closest thing you can get to organic wine that’s also produced with as few chemicals and as little technology as possible.


Additionally, wineries are getting better at packaging their wine. Purato, for example, is an organic Sicilian wine that is said to be carbon neutral: it’s made with recycled paper, cardboard, and glass (and is under $18). Then there are piquettes, which are supposed to be as waste-free as you can get when it comes to alcohol before it’s actually bottled (and also referred to by many as the White Claw for wine lovers).


Lastly, there is hope on the political front, with the Biden administration considering climate change to be an integral factor to overall infrastructure. The RECYCLE Act should see updates via post-pandemic studies on changing consumer habits that have indirect effects on the planet (e.g. more drinking equals more bottles to recycle).


Perhaps that won’t curb your drinking habits but it should increase your know-how when it comes to making your drinking habits as green as your eating habits. And, for anyone who considers themselves to have benefitted from more time at home, that should translate into more respect for the environment we’ve so longed to explore again, too.

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