In our 3-part series, Small Changes, Big Impact, we explore the compound effect that minor adjustments can have on boosting sustainability. The third article explores innovative and affordable ways for breweries to boost sustainability by reducing, reusing, and recycling materials they no longer need.

Part 1: Reducing and Reusing Ingredients
Part 2: Reducing Energy Expenses in Breweries

Spent beer grain getting cleaned out

When Dave Thibodeau built the current headquarters for Durango, CO’s Ska Brewing in 2008, he turned former bowling alleys into tables, insulated his walls with recycled denim (“It’s better than fiberglass,” he says), and saved money on cement by pouring concrete fortified with a safe level of carcinogenic powder called fly ash that coal-fired power plants in nearby New Mexico emitted as a byproduct.  

His materials reflect Ska’s continued commitment to the environment and still serve to showcase the ever-growing opportunities that exist to conserve our ever-dwindling natural resources. 

“Our hope is to get to zero waste,” Thibodeau, Ska’s co-founder and president, says in 2023. 

Ambitious, yes. Impossible, no. 

Whether it’s taking a bite out of the 38% of food that goes uneaten domestically or the 30% contribution that food-and-beverage businesses make to emissions-based climate change globally, small actions by craft breweries can add up to big changes in the amount of waste they generate. 

But this isn’t the old ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra you may have learned in school or even the more modern expectation that you’ll recycle your cans and donate your spent grain to farmers. From reusing diatomaceous earth (DE) in masonry materials to feeding yeast to livestock to minimize methane production, we’re living in a new world of ways to stop overwhelming our planet. And with an increasing number of municipalities restricting what gets dumped down the drain or into landfills, many manufacturers are realizing going green is no longer a choice – it’s a requirement.

Don’t Take Out the Trash

Okay, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ isn’t outdated – just updated to include more options. The Brewers Association (BA) has identified four primary sources of waste at breweries – brewing, packaging, food service, and concerts and events – and two Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hierarchy charts, one for non-hazardous waste and another for food elimination, can help brewery owners prioritize the most ethical methods to divert and dispose of all that trash.

The EPA’s non-hazardous waste hierarchy directs producers to first reduce and reuse waste at its source. Remaining waste should be recycled or composted when possible then used for energy recovery. As a last resort, treated and thrown out. 

According to the second chart, food handlers should, in the following order: 

  1. Reduce the volume of food generated
  2. Feed people
  3. Feed animals
  4. Convert to it industrial uses 
  5. Compost
  6. Landfill or incinerate

Specialty waste haulers abound to manage these channels  – a solid first point of contact is your public works department or your garbage company, which may have branched into alternative disposal methods, particularly if your jurisdiction is one of the many that now limits what can go directly to the dump. 


Fossil Fuels

Wouldn’t it be cool to be the first brewer on your block to manage a fleet of vehicles powered by vegetable oil or corn? 

Iowa’s transportation department has rolled out snow plows fueled by 100% biodiesel, made from soybeans or vegetable oil and able to reduce emissions by 50%. Such high concentrations of biofuel require minor diesel engine modifications but concentrations under 20% work without adjustments. The Iowa experiment proves that unlike in previous generations, advanced technologies and engine redesign are successfully allowing the fuel to stay in a liquid state in cold temperatures. You can contact the Alternative Fuel Foundation for references to suppliers, who may additionally buy your kitchen grease for conversion. 

To keep things simpler, consider a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Manufacturers like Ford and Tesla have launched battery-operated and hybrid trucks, and Metalphoto of Cincinnati writes, “Given the major investments committed by leading manufacturers, we are likely to see a major increase in electric trucks on our roadways in the near future.”

You may be able to receive a $7,500 tax credit on your personal income taxes when you buy a new, qualified plug-in electric vehicle or fuel cell electric vehicle for yourself or your business. Further, some analysts say it’s even easier to take advantage of a business tax credit of up to $40,000 to purchase an EV specifically for your brewery because unlike the consumer credit, the commercial credit doesn’t come with income restrictions.   

Be sure to install an EV charging station in your parking lot, along with car- and bike-share docks and bike racks to encourage non gas-guzzling forms of transportation. 

Brewery near a public transit stop? Incentivize its use (and send a message against drinking and driving) by giving a bus or train pass to employees who live within close commuting distance as well as to longtime loyalty club members who visit frequently.

Bags and Bottles

Make your regulars feel special with a specially designed non-disposable bag they can use to take home bought beer or merch. Cut down further on plastic by giving all shoppers a differently branded reusable bag and reward them with discounts or exclusive shopping hours for reusing it. 

A water bottle carrying your logo – sold in your shop and at events – can serve a similar function as a branded bag. Discourage disposables by offering an incentive to customers who bring yours to your brewery. 

Drinking and Dining Utensils

Minimize plastic water bottles at events by presenting a prize to those who bring a reusable drinking vessel, branded or not, then be sure to have plenty of water stations or even a water truck on hand for refills. For sales of water, secure a supplier who stocks reusable cups and/or compostable bottles. Bonus points for loading your events with biodegradable plates and cutlery, and don’t forget to set up an info table to educate attendees on your efforts.

You don’t have to wait for an event to display your biodegradables. Replace them for paper plates, plastic utensils and styrofoam containers in your pickup food orders, and use minimal single-use items like individual creamers, condiments and straws both to-go and dining in. 


Feed Humans    

Thank goodness for those of us who can’t stand to throw away food, it’s now widely possible to donate excess to organizations that feed the hungry, thanks to the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, which protects businesses and their officers from liability for donating food that meets some basic criteria. The Food Donation Connection matches donated restaurant food with groups accepting donations. 

This solution couldn’t come soon enough. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food waste is the main contributor to solid waste landfills, and when food decomposes it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which is often released directly into the atmosphere. Project Drawdown, known as a leader in climate solutions, reports that preventing food waste is the single most effective solution to prevent global warming of more than 2 degrees celsius.

Not only is food donation so much easier since the food act, the Upcycled Food Association has certified six dozen companies that upcycle food for new purposes, including ReGrained, which exclusively “rescues” spent beer grains. According to Merriam Webster, to upcycle means, “To recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item,” and when it comes to breweries, that can mean more than turning spent grains into pizza dough.

At Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, short pours gain new life as mustard, barbeque sauce or ice cream made by collaborative food producers. 

“We’ve partnered with Mitchell’s Ice Cream to make ice creams out of our Porter and our Christmas Ale, called Edmund Fitzgerald Porter Chocolate Chunk, and Christmas Ale Gingersnap,” sustainability manager Saul Kliorys told “They’re really good.”

Feed Animals 

You might not know that with permission, table scraps can get tossed in with the spent grain you supply a farmer to feed livestock in what’s considered a win-win way for brewers to get rid of their nutrient-rich used barley. 

As long as your farmer and jurisdiction say ok, you can also mix your used yeast into that grain as a feed additive. Not only does brewers yeast contain 40% protein, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service led a study that found post-fermentation saccharomyces cerevisiae reduces the amount of methane cows belch into the atmosphere. The researchers discovered the greater the concentration of hops the yeast absorbed during fermentation the more methane it curbed – around 25%, on average.

This symbiotic grain-feed solution can work superbly, especially if, like Broad Street Brewing outside Philadelphia, your brewery sits on a “micro cattle ranch” that houses the Jericho Mountain Beef Company. Or if, like Alpha Michigan Brewing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you produce so little leftover grain that a resident of your tiny town – reported population 145 – bakes it into dog treats for fun and the kids from the Youth Livestock Market Association pick it up and feed it to their pigs. 

There’s no time to waste to find solutions like these, especially considering that states like Massachusetts and California are increasingly prohibiting businesses and institutions from adding commercial organic waste to the waste stream. But this much-lauded downstream relationship with the agricultural sector isn’t quite as easy as it seems – for brewer or farmer. 

Thibodeau thought it would be cool to put Ska’s used grain silo in the beer garden so patrons could watch the brewery’s farming partner collect it. 

Unfortunately, he discovered, “It’s really not that safe and it’s kind of a mess sometimes and there’s always a possibility he could show up at the least opportune time.”

And it can cost a farmer countless hours and energy each day to pick up hundreds of pounds of soggy grain at an agreed-upon time, calculate the appropriate amount to feed each animal, then wash out the barrels by hand.

“It’s turned out to be a blessing and a curse,” Montana farmer John Stahl told AGDAILY.

Luckily, companies like Against the Grain in Boston have emerged to run collection routes between donor breweries and recipient farms to relieve farmers of the responsibility and ensure quick, clean, quiet – and on-time – pickups at the breweries. 

“Our company’s secret sauce is managing those issues by ensuring that spent grains are regularly and reliably picked up and delivered to farmers on their schedule and in precisely the quantity they need,” founder Holden Cookson said in a statement. 

Instead of giving your grain to farms, you can connect with soil and water districts, environmental conservation departments, farm bureaus, or universities that might seek out spent grain for scientific studies.


Turn Waste Into Energy

If you have packaged organic material you can’t use because it expired, for example, a company like Boston-based Vanguard Renewables collects, depackages and processes it into biogas in anaerobic digesters that only the most flush craft breweries can afford on their own.  

Servicing a client roster that includes Tree House and Sloop, Vanguard makes and sells gas out of solids: unwanted beer, food, kitchen oil and grease, process waste, and wash water from breweries and cideries in New York and New England. 

“Food waste is such a huge problem in our country and a lot of these communities are sending their waste down the drain, and most of our wastewater plants haven’t been updated since the 50s or 60 or maybe 70s,” says public relations manager Billy Kepner. “So a lot of our waste treatment facilities cannot take what is being dumped.”

As it works to bring an anticipated 150 digesters online nationwide by 2026, Vanguard currently offers multi-faceted organic recycling options to breweries around the country by connecting them with the highest-value recycling services. 

Compost Organics

Thibodeau is applying a similar collaborative approach to diverting food waste by partnering with some friends to recently open what he calls a “table to farm” composting facility in Durango where he anticipates taking 2 million pounds of spent grains, yeast and trub annually once the program matures. 

Under the existing arrangement, Thibodeau drives the waste, which he’s nicknamed “SKA-mpost,” to the site himself and leaves it for free, while the facility profits by selling the compost in bulk to landscapers and nurseries. 

“We don’t currently make any money off of that; we’re just happy to let those dollars recirculate locally, and the safety and convenience is worth it to us,” he says.

Ska did win a $200,000 state grant to cover ⅔ of the cost to buy a closed 4,000 gallon truck to drive the SKA-mpost and a new spent grain silo to store it in. 

He recommends that smaller breweries that don’t have access to collaborative or municipal curbside composting should apply for readily available $5,000 and below grants to help offset the cost of their own composting programs.

The best method for DIY composting varies by brewery (warning, options include worms and manual labor) but the BA generally recommends an enclosed composter that costs between several hundred and several thousand dollars. 

The finished compost material can either be used to augment soil on the brewery’s property or shared with a gardening co-op. Great Lakes helped build an urban farm using soil fertilized with spent grain compost and went so far as to experiment with a commercial mushroom breeder to assess the viability of using it to grow mushrooms.

Recycle Inorganics

Eco-aware breweries can bring back “clean-stream” recycling by placing color-coded and descriptive sorting bins in a warehouse, the kitchen, and all dining areas, including public ones. Bring in a rep from the recycling company to train workers on the importance of cleaning before tossing and why, yes, they do need to separate all seven different types of plastic. You may unearth cost savings or higher returns from doing this. 

Implement a voluntary bottle-return policy – with incentives, of course – and post signs and tri-folds around public drinking and dining areas to explain your return and recycle systems. 

“The benefits of doing things for the earth – sometimes business owners will look past that but it’s marketable,” says Thibodeau, whose recycling company showed him how to set up single stream collections for plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, and steel/aluminum. “If your customer knows you’re doing your part, that’s your bottom line.” 

Some recyclers offer rebates, pay more for or only accept baled or huge quantities of cardboard, shrink wrap and polypropylene grain bags. However, a baler can be an out-of-reach expense for a small brewery that may not even generate enough for their local company to accept. 

Enter the co-op recycling model, one pioneered by Great Divide Brewing in Denver and copied by Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. Since 2018, both breweries have used sizable public grants to purchase balers and invited neighboring breweries to drop off their qualifying bags and boxes.

In 2018, the program helped Great Divide reach a 99% diversion rate and receive numerous awards.  

“We estimate that we use 2,000 lbs of polypropylene grain bags a month, and all of this was going to the dump,” says former sustainability coordinator Erin Cox. “We realized if we were struggling with recycling these items, then surely our neighboring breweries were also having the same issue.”

“Every generation seems to understand how hastily we’re running out of time for the environment and how important it is to be a steward,” says Thibodeau. “We’re not too far away from the day from the day it’s nothing less than expected.”

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