Wine Packaging Trends & Climate Change
According to Dr. Richard Smart one of the world’s most read viticultural scientists, 68% of the carbon footprint of wine comes from wine packaging and transport, namely in the export of heavy 750 ml glass bottles. Grape growing contributes 15% and wine making contributes 17%. [For Dr. Smart’s recent paper on wine and climate change click here.
In this article, we dwelve into 3 common wine packaging containers; glass bottles, plastic bottles (PET), and bag-in-box containers. Specifically, we’ll share what the greenhouse gas emissions are for shipping and recycling these containers and the pros and cons of using each one. Specifically, we’ll discuss the Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) that is the environmental impact from cradle to grave for each of the three packaging types.
If you would like to know how Tetra Paks, aluminum cans and the new paper bottles stand up in comparison, you can check out our next post.
glass bottles - wine packaging trend
how consumers feel about glass...
For consumers, glass bottles continue to be the most preferred form of packaging for wine and spirits. This is in part because they believe it to be the most environmental friendly packaging option.
the pros of using glass for wine...
It’s not by accident that people love glass for wine; glass bottles are hands down the best receptacles for ageing wine. Their small neck tops allow just the perfect amount of air ingress when closed with a cork or stelvin screwcap.
It’s also great because glass doesn’t suffer from flavour scalping the way that plastics do; no loss of quality occurs to the wine or the glass by being in contact with one another.
After glass is returned for recycling, the bottles can be washed and back on shelves quickly. Technically speaking, they can be reused 50 times or more before being downcycled (more on this below).
the cons of using glass for wine
Glass bottles are not the best for utilizing space in a shipping containers or as the bottle neck and circular shape wastes space. They also shatter easily when dropped.
Furthermore, as fires rage every summer due to climate change, we should look to glass as one of the culprits. Broken glass or glass bottles left behind after camping can spark wildfires after the suns rays shine through them.
As already mentioned above, there is a limit to how many times you can reuse glass before it must be downcycled. Downcycling is turning a product into something different, like carpet padding, artificial lumber or fleece blankets.
But although glass bottles could be reused 50 times, most glass isn’t washed and reused at all as that would entail returning the exact bottles back to the producer to reuse. Recycled glass is instead immediately ground down and used in fibreglass installation, asphalt or for making sandtraps on golf courses.
In fact, Life Cycle Inventory assessments say that even if glass is reused 20 times before being downcycled, it still emits more greenhouse gas emissions than shipping wine in Bag-in-Box, Tetra Pak, or in single use plastic bottles.
That’s means that using glass leaves the largest carbon footprint behind.
the carbon footprint of glass bottles...
Perhaps the biggest problem with glass is that its use releases the most greenhouse gas emissions of all packaging.
Glass requires colossal temperatures in production. It also needs those same high temperatures to recycle them. But the biggest footprint comes from transporting glass because to it’s so heavy.
Currently, the wine industry is investing heavily into ‘lightweighting’ bottles. Lightweighting is essentially designing wine bottles to be much lighter in grams to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping. On average, bottles weight 560 grams each. Lightweighting produces bottles between 360-450 grams each. Initiatives such as WRAP in the UK conduct research into lightweighting bottles while taking into account the consumers preference for certain bottle shapes for a premium look.
WRAP has encouraged other initiatives include shipping wine in bulk and then bottling it in the UK to save on the greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. Doing this ensures that glass bottles can be cleaned and refilled instead of recycled.
Shipping wine in bulk is a great idea. It requires the support of the producers, environmental initiatives and government support. We’re looking forward to following the growth of this important trend.
Still for many, returning to the days of bulk shipping, will not be palatable for many quality producers. Domaine bottling, that is when wine producers bottle their own wine, is seen as one of the best inventions of the 20th century for improving wine quality. Premium producers likely won’t be keen on going back. However, for non-premium ready on release wines, we could see a return to bulk shipping.
Winemaker and consultant Lenz Moser from Austria is incredibly passionate about the environment. He drives a hydrogen powered car and has stopped eating meat. As a winemaking consultant, he makes his clients sign a ‘green-deal’ as part of the contract.
Currently, he is working with a winery in Ningxia, the Napa Valley of China. He argues that lighweighting is one trend that will not catch on there. This is a place where where big bottles and formats are beloved and weights of 1.4 kilos are regular (from the Vancouver International Wine Festival seminar with Moderator Michelle Bouffard 2020).
China is an important wine market and ranked 4th for highest dollar value worth of wine.
Then there is the United States, one of the largest markets for wine purchases. The US currently imports the highest dollar value worth of wine in the world but lacks federal recycling programs. You can see how this affects the low percentage of glass recycled there (see below).
the percentage of glass bottles that get recycled...
Worldwide, recycling depots for glass are generally well established and governments have a recycling fees attached to the glass bottle. Indeed, in British Columbia, Canada, 93% of glass bottles are returned for recycling. Sadly, in the US, just 34% of glass bottles are returned to recycling depots (2017).
Summary - glass bottles for wine...
Glass is the best packaging for wine quality and for human consumption as glass does not leech harmful chemicals into the wine. However, it has the highest carbon footprint of all wine packaging due to their heavy weight, and the super high temperatures needed to make and recycle them.
We’d love to see international and inter-governmental support for forcing all producers to lightweight their bottles.
We also thought about the merits of creating a small selection of international sizes of wine bottles that could be refilled in the country they were shipped to. But that only works if each country exports the same amount of wine as everyone else, and that’s just not the case.
Even if you fill a glass bottle 20 times, it still uses more fossil fuels and consequently raises global warming more than shipping single use plastics. (‘The Environmental Impacts of Packaging,’ published in March 2007 in Research Gate here.)
Still, fibreglass installation, sandtraps, and asphalt, will always have a supply of wine bottles to make them as it is the only packaging that allows wine to age well.
plastic bottles - wine packaging trend
Plastic bottles come in 2 main types: PVC bottles and PET bottles. Generally, PVC bottles are not used as wine receptacles. Here we’ll discuss PET or polyethylene terephthalate bottles which have better oxygen barrier properties and therefore offer a reasonable shelf life.
Some of you may be wondering why this section on plastics is so large when you rarely see a plastic wine bottle on the shelf.
That’s because most wine packaging is lined with a layer of plastic or resin that uses the same industrial chemical base from petroleum; Bag-in-Box, aluminum cans, the new paper bottles, and tetra-paks all have plastic in them.
how consumers feel about plastic bottles...
These bottles are products of the oil industry and made with petroleum, a known fact that does not give it credibility with consumers. Furthermore, there is a growing awareness of the negative health effects of BPA and EA in plastics. See more on this below.
However, consumers enjoy plastic bottles for picnics or pool parties as they are lightweight and don’t shatter when dropped.
the pros of PET bottles...
Plastic is cheap to make. As resin costs are 30-50% of the final cost of plastic, it’s the oil producing countries that will continue to produce plastic bottles at low, low prices. Believe it or not, manufacturing plastic bottles leaves a much smaller carbon footprint over glass.
Moreover, plastic bottles are the clear choice for airlines as plastic wine bottles can’t be used as a weapon.
Yet the greatest advantage of plastics is it is super lightweight (about 60 grams compared to the 560 grams) on average for glass) so that shipping wine this way saves carbon. Furthermore, producers have already been working with bottle makers to make square shaped plastic bottles that help save space while shipping.
And although many experts in the wine industry continue to promote the benefits of PET plastic bottles, there are reasons for concern.
the cons of using PET plastic bottles...
Shelf-life’s of PET bottles range from 12-18 months.
That means you have to drink the wine from PET bottles within about 6 months after purchase before the plastic starts to break down and the wine inside oxidizes. That is of course assuming that the store clerks have rotated the wine stocks properly and you have six months left. (see below for my experience with boxed wine).
Plastics therefore cannot be used for high quality wines meant for cellaring.
However, according to a recent poll of 1900 Americans, 90% of wine bottles purchased are consumed within the first 2 weeks after purchase. Therefore, rarely does wine require the benefits of glass for ageing.
Nevertheless, there is a limit to how often you can recycle PET bottles as they weaken after every use. Plastic can only be washed and reused 25 times before it degrades and must be downcycled.
And, let’s face it, plastics returned to recycling depots are almost never reused!
That’s because plastics must be recycled with near identical compositions. With the myriad of compositions around, this is an arduous task.
Instead, plastics returned for recycling in North America were often bought by China for a good 20 years. In 2018, China stopped purchasing our plastic garbage. It turns out, China was only downcycling the easiest and best plastics, most of it was being dumped and burned (burning causes repiratory illnesses in the locals).
One study concluded that 60% of ocean plastics comes from Asia. But a lot of the plastic may have originated here.
Again, it’s the oil-producing nations that produce plastic (that includes Canada and the US). In fact, plastic production is their backup plan as the world starts to ween it’s way off of gas-powered cars. In the US, plastic companies are aiming to triple their plastic production by 2050.
[Information for the last 3 paragraphs came from a Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s (CBC) research documentary called, The Passionate Eye, Episode 164 ‘Plastic Wars’]
The risks of biphenol A (BPA) and estrogenic activity (EA) in plastics...
Now let’s talk about about the controversy surrounding the plastic coating, BPA. BPA is an industrial chemical used for making plastics and resin.
Still, there are plastics that are made BPA-free.
Yet, The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) published a report that said all plastics, leach harmful estrogenic chemicals especially when exposed to heat such as pasteurization, microwaves, sunlight and machine dish washing. The report further argued that plastics do not even need to be heated to have estrogenic activity (EA).
Estrogenic chemicals interfere with hormonal biology and can cause dramatic changes in infinitesimal quantities. Diabetes, hermaphrodites and other conditions that affect hair growth, reproduction, cognitive
performance, injury response, excretion, sensory perception, and metabolic rate can all be altered.
The worst part is that researchers detected estrogenic activity in over five hundred plastics, including many advertised as BPA free.
Frederick vom Saal, a respected professor of reproductive biology doesn’t ever buy canned foods or beverages. In an interview for the Yale University online magazine Environment 360, he said, “Right now, it is the most studied chemical in the world. The NIH [National Institutes of Health] has $30 million of ongoing studies of this chemical. Do you think that federal officials in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan, would all have this as the highest priority chemical to study, if there were only a few alarmists saying it was a problem?”
the carbon footprint of PET plastic bottles...
The best argument for plastic bottle use is that plastic is much lighter than glass. Consequently, the carbon released during shipping and transport is reduced. In fact, replacing one billion glass bottles with PET bottles would save around 90,000 tons of carbon monoxide.
the percentage of PET plastic bottles that get recycled...
Unfortunately, consumers are less likely to recycle plastic then they do glass. In British Columbia, Canada, consumers bring 75% of plastic bottles to recycling depots compared to 93% of glass bottles. In the US, only 29% of plastics are returned to recycling depots compared to 34% of glass.
We have always had a big plastics problem, but as China used to purchase all of our recycled plastic, we didn’t notice it. Now, that China no longer buys our plastic recycling, we have a big plastics problem in our backyard.
In fact, since plastics’ inception, it is estimated only 10% of the world’s plastics have ever been recycled. (CBC’s The Passionate Eye, ‘Plastic Wars’ Episode 164).
Summary of plastic bottles...
Just as with glass, it takes a government led response to get plastics into recycling depots and recycling efforts are paid for largely by consumers. Not only do consumers bring back fewer plastic bottles for
refund over its glass counterparts, most of them end up in landfills or oceans.
It is estimated only 10% of the world’s plastics have ever been recycled.
Agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency had at first both deemed plastics with BPA to be harmful, they now say that the current levels of exposure are fine. Still, scientists are concerned with the level of EA leeching from plastics who warn that even small exposures can cause hormone imbalances. All of the wealthy industrialized nations are spending millions to study BPA and EA.
We are heavily invested in plastics and they will not go away as the oil and plastics industry is planning on ramping up single-use plastic production as a way to balance dwindling gas-powered car use. Given the devastating impact of shipping 33 billion glass wine bottles around the world every year, it gives us pause to consider which is actually worse.
In order for us to know, it’s about time we forced our goverments to legislate that plastic companies must study and release the full environmental impact of throwing out and recycling their products. As the CBC’s Passionate Eye documentary ‘Plastic Wars’ questions, “Did the plastics industry use the lure of recycling to sell even more plastic?”
However, the biggest argument in favour of plastics is their low carbon output during shipping and transporting because they are lightweight. Bag-in-Box, aluminum cans, paper bottles, and tetra-pak all contain a layer of plastic.
Bag-in-Box (BIB) - wine packaging trend
Bag-in-box is one of the fastest growing categories for wine packaging. This was true before Covid and it is even more true now.
Mostly, this container is used for inexpensive bulk wine. However, as consumer attitudes continue to change towards bag-in-box, we should begin to see more options of wines available.
how consumers feel about the bag-in-box containers for wine...
BIB has long been popular in New Zealand, Australia, and in the Scandinavian countries where 60% of wines sold in these markets is in a box. Whereas Germany is a big exporter of BIB wines, domestically sales of BIB are pretty low.
Still, bag-in-box is gaining market share in North America and has been for years. Sales are so strong in the US that competition has paved the way for more premium choices. Further north in Ontario and British Columbia, Canadian sales are increasing but selection of wines is still low.
The large grocery chain Sainsbury’s in the UK reported a 41% rise in bag-in-box wine sales during Covid- lockdown.
It’s a popular choice due to it’s low price, large quantity and ability to stay fresh for weeks.
the pros of using the bag-in-box system...
Shipping wines via bag-in-box is a great to lower the carbon footprint during transport. They are lightweight and shaped perfectly in rectangles to maximize storage space.
In fact, everyone in the production chain enjoys the inexpensive price of the packaging. They are cheaper to fill and ship for producers and this cost savings gets handed down to consumers.
In Australia, where BIB were invented, it’s a multi-purpose tool for camping. After finishing the wine, you can blow up the bag and use it as a pillow!
the cons of using the bag-in-box system...
The inside pouches of BIB are generally made of composite foil materials such as polyethylene (plastic) and a thin layer of aluminium both turned into a metallized film. Therefore, wines stored in them are subject to the same issues of BPA and EA leaching as plastic bottles are (disussed thoroughly above).
Here’s the clincher, although you have up to six weeks after first opening a bag-in-box, the container only has a 9 month shelf life no matter when you open it. We’ve spoken to many retail store workers and not one of them knew this.
That means that bag-in-box containers are not being rotated in shelves the way they should.
When I purchased my first my first bag-in-box 3L wine during Covid-lockdown, it was oxidized (spoiled due to over exposure to oxygen resulting in the fruits tasting less fresh and more stewed in nature).
I guess it wasn’t so bad because I drank it anyway.
the carbon footprint of bag-in-box...
“Switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.” – Tyler Colman writing for the The New York Times.
the percentage of bag-in-box that get recycled...
Furthermore, although rates of recycling are high in say the Netherlands (97%), they remain low in North America. In British Columbia, Canada, only 49.1% of bag-in-box containers are returned (Compared to glass at 93% and plastics at 75%).
I couldn’t find the recycling figure for Bag-in-Box being recycled in the US. Although, Americans only recycle or compost 34% of their total waste. It’s likely that the figure for BIB recycling is lower than that number.
If there are any US consumers reading this, I would love your comments below about bag-in-box recycling in your area!
This website says that as the metallized film is made of both aluminum and plastic, it depends on the percentage of the separate materials as to which one of them is recycled. They also argue that as the layer is so lightweight and thin, it will be more expensive than other materials to recycle.
And just like with our concerns above about where plastics actually end up once they are returned to recycling depots, the concern is here as well. The only company that returned our calls was Encorp Pacific whose clerk said some BIB’s are taken to be processed in Canada while some are sent overseas. Although, she admitted she wasn’t certain.
Summary of BIB...
Because Bag-in-Box liners are made of aluminum and polyethylene, they carry the same concerns for health as plastic bottles (see above).
The paper is easily recycled. But as the metallized layer composed of aluminum and plastic is so light, it may not be recycled at all even though it’s been returned to a recycling depot. On the other hand, the relative waste it creates is so much smaller than an entire PET bottle.
Overall, this is an exciting category as it is inexpensive, and has the lowest carbon footprint of any wine container in shipping and transport (with the small exception of shipping wine in bulk). Compared to plastic bottles, this container is so much better for shipping due to it’s rectangle shape and maxiumum use of space.
BIB can’t be used for wines meant for cellaring as they have a short 9 month shelf life.
Yet, sales of BIB are growing fast. In California, this has meant that there are more wine options available for purchase. Hopefully, this will also mean that store clerks will become better educated on rotating stocks in the shelf.
68% of the carbon footprint of wine comes from wine packaging and transport, namely in the export of heavy 750 ml glass bottles. Therefore, we’ll continue to watch and report on new developments in wine packaging trends.
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