That’s the spirit: how sustainable are our favourite alcoholic beverages?

Many humans engage in the consumption of alcohol to alter their mental and emotional status. Other reasons for its consumption are stress reduction, self-medication (pain relief both physical and emotional) and to induce a sense of social confidence and ease in the company of others. But it might be surprising to see what an enormous impact alcohol production has on our environment.

Table 1 Alcoholic Beverages Production

Alcoholic Beverages Production

World production (in billion litres)


196 (Statista, 2017)


25.9 (OIV, 2016)

Spirits (Vodka, Tequila, Whisky, Rum, Gin)

7.44 (Santos, 2013)

The land required for growing the vast amounts of ingredients that go into these beverages (such as grains, hops and grapes) is huge and needs some number crunching. For example, the global vineyard surface area amounted to about 7.6 million hectares (Statista, 2017) which is equivalent to 76,000 square kilometres. Global barley yield per hectare is projected to be around 2.92 metric tons (FAO, 2014) and 1.3 metric tons of barley would yield 8,837 litres of beer (The Maltsters Association of Great Britain , n.d.) which means a hectare of barley crop would yield approximately 19,849 litres of beer. By assuming that barley is the crop used for both beer and spirits manufacturing and summing both results, in total 203.44 billion litres, would need 10249382 hectares of land (102493 square kilometres). Therefore the total amount of land needed to produce alcoholic beverages is approximately 178493 square kilometres which is almost the size of Cambodia.

This industry also consumes an enormous amount of water. The overall water footprint (farm to glass) of Czech and South African beer production is at 45 litres and 155 litres to every 1 litre of beer respectively (WWF , 2009) whereas for wine it stands at 843 litres for every 1 litre of wine (Bonamente, et al., 2015). So combining both waters consumed by the beer and the wine industry, we need approximately 30987 litres of water of which 9154 billion litres of water is for the beer industry and the rest, 21833 billion litres (21.83 km³) of water, for production of wine. It should be noted that the water required for beer production varies globally and we used Czech water numbers for calculating the water footprint since they were the smallest. This amount of water is equivalent to the total renewable water resources consumed by Tajikistan in 2011 which stands at 21.91 km³ (Wikipedia, 2014).

In the UK, depending on the type of packaging, i.e. glass bottles, aluminium or steel cans, 1 litre of beer requires 10.3–17.5 MJ of primary energy and emits 510–842 g of CO₂ eq. (Amienyo & Azapagic, 2016). So if we go by lower numbers for energy and extrapolating the results to the annual global consumption of beer and spirits to a primary energy demand of over 2104599 TJ (584,610,833,333 kWh) which is more than the electricity consumed by Germany in a year (533,000,000,000 kWh/year) (Wikipedia, 2016). Beer production also results in 103754400 metric ton of CO₂ eq. emissions. Carbon footprints for 1 litre of a wine bottle for both red and white wines are 1.91 kgCO₂e and 1.83 kgCO₂e respectively (Rinaldi, et al., 2016). If we take into account the lower number then 25.9 billion litres of wine should produce approximately 47397000 metric tonnes of CO₂ eq. emissions. The total carbon footprint for alcoholic beverages production stands at 151151 kt which is only slightly more than Algeria’s 147,692 yearly CO₂ emissions (Wikipedia, 2015).

On top of that, as per the WHO report on Alcohol and Health 2014, problems related to the consumption of alcohol rank among the top five risk factors for disease, disability and human deaths throughout the world. There are three mechanisms of harm caused by alcohol consumption (WHO, 2014):

  • Toxic effects on organs and tissues.

  • Intoxication, leading to weakening of physical coordination, awareness, cognition, perception, affect or behaviour.

  • Dependence, whereby the drinker’s self-control over his or her drinking behaviour is reduced.

Some of the major diseases and injuries caused by alcohol consumption, according to the WHO (2014), include neuropsychiatric conditions, gastrointestinal diseases, cancers, intentional injuries, unintentional injuries, cardiovascular diseases, foetal alcohol syndrome and preterm birth complications, diabetes mellitus and infectious diseases (see Figure 1). For the year 2013-14 in England, the total cost to society of alcohol-related injury was predicted to be around £21bn and cost the NHS £3.5 billion  (Public Health England, 2014). 

Figure 1 Alcohol misuse damages health. Adapted from (Public Health England, 2014)

Based on the above analysis, we can see that alcohol consumption plays a huge role in terms of socialising and economic stimulation across the world. However, it also has a significant negative impact in terms of the vast land, water and energy resources it locks up and its impact on human health. It is up to society as a whole to decide whether alcohol is a worthwhile focus for so many of our valuable resources or whether these could be better invested elsewhere to support our ever growing global population.  

Amienyo, D. & Azapagic, A., 2016. Life cycle environmental impacts and costs of beer production and consumption in the UK. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 21(4), pp. 492-509.
Bonamente, E., Scrucca, F., Asdrubali, F. & Cotana, F., 2015. The Water Footprint of the Wine Industry: Implementation of an Assessment Methodology and Application to a Case Study. Sustainability, 7(9), pp. 12190-12208.
FAO, 2014. FAOSTAT. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 27 September 2017].
OIV, 2016. 2016 World wine production estimated at 259 mhl. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 26 September 2017].
Public Health England, 2014. Alcohol treatment in England 2013-14, London: Public Health England.
Rinaldi, S. et al., 2016. Water and Carbon Footprint of Wine: Methodology Review and Application to a Case Study. Sustainability, 8(7), p. 621.
Santos, L., 2013. Filipinos are world's biggest gin drinkers. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 26 September 2016].
Statista, 2017. Beer production worldwide from 1998 to 2016 (in billion hectoliters). [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 26 September 2017].
Statista, 2017. Global wheat yield per hectare from 2010/2011 to 2025/2026 (in metric tons)*. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 27 September 2017].
Statista, 2017. Vineyard surface area worldwide from 2000 to 2016 (in 1,000 hectares). [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 26 September 2017].
The Guardian, 2012. How much water is needed to produce food and how much do we waste?. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 26 September 2017].
The Maltsters Association of Great Britain , n.d. Malt Facts. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 27 September 2017].
WHO, 2014. Global status report on alcohol and health 2014, Luxembourg: World Health Organization.
Wikipedia, 2014. List of countries by total renewable water resources. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 29 September 2017].
Wikipedia, 2015. List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 29 September 2017].
Wikipedia, 2016. List of countries by electricity consumption. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 29 September 2017].
WWF , 2009. Water footprint of beer more on the farm than in the brewery. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 29 September 2017].
Posted on 30 October 2017 By Sandeep Jagtap

Plants are good but cyborgs are better…

Inorganic-biological hybrid organisms  or ‘cyborg’ bacteria, which function as mini solar panels, are the key to producing renewable energy in a process that is not only claimed to be more efficient than photosynthesis, but which is also surprisingly simple.

As society grapples with the need to increase energy production without relying on polluting fossil fuels, many are increasingly turning to ways of converting sunlight into useful compounds. One approach is to use abiotic catalysts (e.g. solar panels) to generate renewable energy. Whilst the installation of solar panels has increased significantly in recent years, it is limited by relatively low efficiency and the high monetary and energy related costs of production, particularly the need for relatively expensive solid electrodes. Another approach frequently turned to is the evolutionarily perfected mechanism of photosynthesis by which energy and oxygen are generated from sunlight. However, the limitation to this approach is that it relies on chlorophyll which is not efficient enough for commercial production of fuels and feedstocks.
In response, researchers at the University of California have come up with an ingeniously simple solution that combined a bacterial species which produces large volumes of useful energy compounds with highly efficient inorganic light absorbing compounds. The process works by tweaking a defence mechanism of the naturally occurring, non-photosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica. In response to toxic cadmium, they produce and coat themselves in cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanoparticles- effectively mini solar panels. In the process, they become a “cyborg” organism called M. thermoacetica-CdS which can use light, carbon dioxide and water to produce acetic acid. This might not sound very special, but acetic acid is easily upgraded to a number of fuels, polymers, pharmaceuticals and commodity chemicals (i.e. the traditional used of fossil fuels) through the use of other bacterial species.
As the process is more than 80% efficient, it is superior to plant photosynthesis and standard full size solar panels. The researchers believe that as the process is self-replicating and self-regenerating, not only is it zero-waste technology, but it is also relatively low maintenance and cost effective to install. The researchers also suggest that this makes it ideal for installation in large vats in rural areas, or even in enclosures at sea (where there are no competing land use issues). Indeed, it has been theorised that the hybrid ‘cyborg’ bacteria they created may have naturally occurring analogues which may be even more efficient. Future work therefore, will aim to hunt for possible naturally occurring species in addition to exploring more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulphide.
The researchers are presented their work at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on 22nd August 2017 Want to read more? Full details here: Cyborg bacteria: Inorganic-biological hybrid organisms for solar-to-chemical production, the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Posted on 02 October 2017 By Jamie Stone
Is our fear of Robots Irrational? Three ways Robots can replace humans and three ways they can’t. 
When people think about robots, their brain conjures up the image of a 6ft, walking and talking metal object with laser eyes– these are called humanoids and they aren’t the type typically found in industry. Since their introduction, they have been perceived as vicious pieces of technologies with a vendetta against humans. Whether the fear is in response to their appearance or their intelligence, people believe robots are ‘’taking over’’.
As pieces of programmable machinery, industrial robots can be efficient at many things. Their development over the years has been all for the purpose of serving humans and making lives easier. They are highly efficient when carrying out three types of tasks: 
1. Predictable Work
Robots can take over predictable physical work, which includes repetitive, data based processes that can become tedious to human employees and often cause repetitive-movement injuries. Such processes include welding, chopping vegetables and assembly. Employing robots for these dreary jobs allow humans to move up the job-ladder and advance in their careers faster. 
2. High Payloads
Robots have extremely high payloads. They are ideal in handling and processing large products, which if handled by humans can cause injury. For example, handling of car parts or packaging and palletising finished products. 
3. Harmful Environments
Robots can work in hazardous and unfavourable environments. Let’s face it, humans do not want to work in -30°C temperatures or in dangerous chemical plants. The solution? Get a robot to do it and control them from the outside! 
On the other hand, like any piece of machinery, industrial robots have limitations. These include a range of abilities only humans possess, ones robots will never be able to achieve. Humans are irreplaceable, especially in these three ways: 
1. Problem Solving
Robots can be smart but they are only capable of so much; as in they can only solve problems which they have data for whereas humans can solve any problem with minimal data, especially in unfamiliar situations. 
2. Optimal Flexibility
Humans are still considered the most flexible species, whether it’s their ability to interpret information, both old and new, or their physical reach. For example, once a robot is used to build the metallic body of a car, a human is still needed to complete the wiring within the small crevices. 
3. Empathy
The third, and possibly most important human characteristic that robots can never possess is empathy. Naturally, humans are more expressive, they are caring, creative and vulnerable – emitting a sense of calmness to those surrounding them. Even the most intelligent robot cannot achieve this in certain jobs. For example, not all patients at the University of California’s hospital appreciate the Tug robot roaming the corridors delivering food trays and prescriptions. They were found to prefer the unique, expressive faces of the carers and nurses. 
Not only are humans unique, often industrial processes are too complicated or variable for robots to handle. It was found that whilst 78% of predictable physical jobs are fully automatable, only 25% of unpredictable physical jobs are fully automatable. Therefore, a large majority of industrial processes remain in the capable hands of humans. 
In our distinctive rule-based world, robots were given rules. Dubbed The Three Laws of Robotics, they were set by the creator of Robots, Isaac Asimov in 1942. They are: 
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
2. A robot must obey the order given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. 
These laws apply to every robot ever created, whether it’s the little robot worming its way around feet to vacuum your carpets or the 54kg industrial robot cutting marshmallows at Boomf’s factory in London. 
It is appropriate to assume that combining human skills along with robot efficiency creates an unbeatable collaboration. Factories enlisting both robots and human employees find a higher production rate, reduced errors and waste, as well as higher quality products. In the near future, robots will become the norm in many industries and in everyday lives. So, are you keen on having a new robot co-worker? 
Fast Company. (2013). The Four Things People Can Still Do Better Than Computers. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Aug. 2017].
McKinsey & Company. (2017). Where machines could replace humans--and where they can’t (yet). [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Aug. 2017].
Simon, M. (2015). This Incredible Hospital Robot Is Saving Lives. Also, I Hate It. [online] WIRED. Available at: [Accessed 14 Aug. 2017].
Posted on 06 September 2017 By Farah Bader