Glass Bottles – the elephant in the room for sustainable wine

Over the past couple of weeks (whilst I have been avoiding writing the next in the sustainability and wine series for these pages) there have been some interesting goings-on in the space of sustainability and wine. 

One of my hobby-horses, or it would probably be better described as a hobby-sheep given the amount I bleat on about it, is wine packaging – the glass bottle.  There is still a head in the sand (pun intended) mentality when it comes to the way many wine producers, and quite frankly the wine trade in general, view the container in which wine is stored.  The view that heaviest is best is a throw back to a time when wine was an elitist aspiration, enjoyed by ruddy faced men wearing cravats and also quite possibly a time prior to this when more robust heavier bottles were actually favourable because they were made to be reused many times over. 

But times have changed and today it is unacceptable and costly for packaging to approach the same weight as the product it holds.  And without laying judgment as to ones reverence to the product inside, from a packaging perspective wine is just another fast moving consumer good with a disposable container. 

These thoughts would have certainly been at the front of the LCBO’s mind this week when they announced that wine in their under $15 CAD price bracket will need to be packaged in bottles weighing 420 grams or less from 2013 onwards.  As the largest purchaser of beverage alcohol in the world this new policy has the potential to not only dramatically reduce GHG emissions from the wine sector but it could also quite possibly change the way that wine is packaged and transported around the globe.  But I still think that it’s a shame they didn’t go all out and decree that all table wines need to make the change as this would go a long way to changing  consumer attitudes which incorrectly assume that wine in lighter or alternate packaging is inferior in quality.  To their credit though, the LCBO have said that they will give buying preference to wines in the higher price categories that make efforts to lower glass weight.

Ironically this announcement comes shortly after a conversation I had with Rebecca Gibb for an article she was writing for the New Zealand Herald on wines in lighter bottles.  Rebecca is an award winning journalist and Decanter’s New Zealand Wine Correspondent – she was genuinely surprised that New Zealand was not leading the way in glass light weighting.  If the current status-quo is kept, residents of Ontario will need to find other options from 2013 onwards as New Zealand glass will fail to meet the 420 gram threshold by 30 grams.  

Alternate packaging also crept into our conversation.  I am a strong advocate for the wine industry to break with convention and embrace a new, more sustainable wine packaging solution.  There are a number of solutions available now – PET, Tetra and Pouches.   Yealands Estate, a sustainability pioneer I work closely with here in New Zealand, are now starting to look at plant based plastic solutions for their range of wines packaged in PET under their Full Circle brand.

So what is the big issue with glass?  Well the carbon footprint and energy associated with glass is a very significant part of the product life cycle.  Even in New Zealand, where we have access to a large amount of renewable energy and good glass recycling programmes (glass plants with access to low renewable energy and low glass recycling will have a significantly worse carbon footprint), glass makes up over 40% of the life cycle carbon footprint of a wine shipped to the UK.  If you also include the upstream and downstream emissions from transportation (e.g. it takes more diesel and bunker fuel to transport heavier packaging) this number pushes in excess of 50% – and these numbers are from an assessment using the lightest possible glass available in New Zealand.

These numbers are incredible and must pose a massive threat to the container glass industry, well at least in the single use sense.   An associate of mine made a great point the other day that glass is not actually environmentally bad, it is the fact that it is used only once nowadays that is the issue.  After all the Grolsch bottle when used in Denmark must be one of the most environmentally sustainable packages in the world.  

So reach for the lighter bottle, and if you are worried about the perception of it at the dinner party table, you could put to use your dusty decanter! 

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Roger Kerrison is a consultant who works in the Food and Beverage industry in the fields of design, development, systems and management in sustainability for Asia Pacific consultancy Aura Sustainability.

  • Stephanie

    You have to look at the complete carbon footprint of all packages to make a real analysis. You can’t just compare based on transportation. What about raw material extraction? PET, Tetra and pouches rely on petroleum processing. For PET, that’s a HUGE part of the carbon footprint.

    • Roger

      Hi Stephanie,
      These numbers are based on a full LCA, cradle to grave. Totally agree that the full picture needs to be taken into account – and it has. Best, Roger

  • Robert Winkler

    I will indeed, Roger, dust off [as I have been for perhaps 40 odd years] my old decanters, buy regionally [within 200 hundred miles], encourage local [50 mile radious] vineyards, and encourage our youth to grow organically. Is this a large and sustainable market – you bet!

    ;}

  • I was just discussing with a friend the same issue with bottling, distribution pitfalls and opportunities to develop new (& revive old) models to not just to reduce carbon footprint but to divert the waste/recycling stream in the world of kombucha. The same principles apply to kombucha, beer, milk, vinegar, etc as to wine.

    What ever happened to local bottling facilities (for local or imported goods)? How about returning bottles for the deposit so they can be reused? Glass has a lifespan that can potentially serve multiple generations of consumers. Additionally, there are many options that can be put into play using the bottle deposit and B.Y.O.Bottle/container & Tap models or hybrids thereof. For most companies suppliers, distributors, bottlers, & retailers having repeat business with the same people is good for business, builds a more robust local economies, and provides the basis sustainable (in the biz sense) growth.

    As we try to re-image our future consumption habits, let’s not forget to look to the past. Most of all let’s imagine a world without petroleum based plastics and throw-away habits — the Earth is and island.

  • What about the lids – what do the LCA’s reveal, natural or synthetic cork or screw on lid? Which type has the lowest negative impact whilst maintaining wine quality?

  • Jonathan

    I would be interested to see a comparrisson between different coloured bottles, as have heard that the more heavily coloured bottles cannot be as effectively recycled. Perhaps the incentive from LCBO should be on glass weight and colour? Also reuse of bottles, presumably everyone is fearful of contamination, and empty bottle transport would be required from net import to net export localities – but it would be interesting to see an analysis of the LCA of this process (including collection, sterilisation, transport, breakage) placed in context with other packaging, recycled and non-recycled glass.