Alcohol and the environment – the hangover that nobody talks about

Alcohol and the environment – the hangover that nobody talks about

Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with the sensations of a shocking hangover. Dehydrated, hot as hell, no energy, dodgy tummy, and a fuzzy awareness of a near-by, wine-stained dress in a crumpled heap on your bedroom floor (damn you, Malbec). 

Turns out humans are not the only ones with a hangover. In fact, our planet is suffering exactly the same symptoms as your average boozy party girl – but with zero choice in the matter.


In order to meet the demands of the growing alcohol industry, crops such as grapes, hops and barley need to be mass-produced. This growth, together with the process of fermentation, requires an enormous amount of freshwater. 

To provide some perspective, just one 500ml bottle of beer requires approximately 148 litres of water. This is the same amount of water an average person uses in a whole day. So if you were to squeeze in a few drinks with the girls, a couple of times a week, then you’ve already doubled your weekly water consumption. Considering the National Geographic estimates that by 2025 ‘1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions’, that’s a pretty unsustainable habit a lot of people are unknowingly buying into.

Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of our population in the last century according to the UN, and the agricultural industry is the biggest contributor to this – responsible for 69% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. 

No wonder the earth is feeling parched.

Rising temperatures 

In order to mass-produce alcohol, large areas are being cleared across the globe to accommodate the increasing demand for crops. As we all know by now, deforestation is a huge catalyst for climate change. The trees play a vital role in absorbing carbon, and by removing them, we are increasing the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and significantly contributing to global warming. 

A (not so) fun fact: in the UK alone, it is estimated that 1.5% of greenhouse gas emissions are created by the production and consumption of alcohol.

Tom Cumberlege, Associate Director of corporate carbon measuring company Carbon Trust, advises “as a rule of thumb, the higher the alcoholic content of a drink, the higher the carbon footprint per litre – so beer is lower than wine, which is lower than spirits.”

Low batteries

It’s easy to forget about the energy that went into producing an alcoholic drink, especially when it’s your fifth one of the night. Similarly to your dance moves, the manufacture of beer and the distillation of spirits require copious supplies of energy. Heat is a crucial part of the process, and don’t forget the refrigeration that’s later required along the distribution line. Yet again, the earth’s resources are being drained and nothing is given back in the way of restoration. Our planet is left worn out and run down, just like us. 

But an afternoon of carbs isn’t going to bring the earth back to life. It’s going to need a lot more, and sadly not enough is being done about it. 

Toxic by-products

Sure – it can feel great pouring alcoholic beverages into our bodies, but we all know it’s not quite so lovely when the ‘by-product’ of a night out is exiting our bodies the next day (we won’t go into detail on this one). The same goes for our planet – the alcohol industry chugs on its resources, and then carelessly chucks up a load of harmful waste in its place. 

Let’s take the production of rum, for example. This spirit is especially toxic to the environment as it’s made from molasses and cane juice, which can disrupt the microorganism balance in the places where it’s distilled. Tequila is another one: “For every  litre of tequila, you get about 11 pounds of pulp and 10 liters of vinazas, or acidic waste — which ends up befouling soil and water in Mexico’s Jalisco state.”

Who knew the earth was left ‘befouled’ in ‘acidic waste’ after a strong drink, too?

Single-use materials

You know how you bought that dress with the good intention to ‘get lots of wear out of it’, but now it’s covered in red wine and there’s no chance you’ll get to use it again? So it spends a while regretfully strewn over your chair, and at some later date ends up in the trash alongside a host of other one-night-only numbers that were all damaged far too soon….

Well please allow me to introduce you to: the packaging industry. 

A crazy number of glass and plastic bottles, kegs, aluminium cans, and cardboard boxes are required for distributing alcoholic beverages all over the world. You’d be forgiven for saying, ‘but aren’t all these materials recyclable?’ Because yes, you’re absolutely right they are – but sadly the slightest bit of damage and they’re no longer fit for use (just like your dress). So what happens? The industry just throws them out and orders new ones. And more new ones. And more new ones… And keeps feeding into this unsustainable cycle of supply and demand, leaving us in this shit-tip of mismanaged waste. 

By comparison with the other hangover symptoms our planet endures, single use materials is actually one of the biggest. In a test Carbon Trust undertook with Carlsberg, they found that packaging accounts for 40% of an average beer’s total carbon footprint. It’s also been reported that 50 billion cans go un-recycled each year in the US whilst 70% of wine bottles end up in landfills. In the UK, 50% of alcohol containers aren’t recycled and are thrown into general waste bins.

We’re so sorry, planet earth.

So spare a thought for our home, if you will. And next time you’re contemplating the environmental effects of a hangover, remember it’s not just the extra ubers you took instead of the night tube, or the food that went to waste in your fridge because you NEEDED a Dominos… There’s actually a whole lot more damage being done to our planet, and it’s important to educate both ourselves and others, so that we can make conscious, sustainable choices about the products we buy and drink*. 

*It’s important to note that alcohol-free alternatives can still play a role in generating some of these negative environmental impacts. The good news however, is that whilst many alcoholic beverages can only be produced at their origin and then shipped worldwide (i.e. Tequila is from Mexico, Scotch Whiskey is from Scotland, Champagne is from.. well, Champagne), your AF alternatives can often be sourced locally – thereby immediately reducing your carbon footprint.

Written by Shauna Jordan

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