Wine Packaging Trends & Climate Change
Welcome to my in-depth analysis of three popular wine packaging options: Tetra Pak, Aluminum Cans, and Paper Bottles. If you would like to read about the environmental impact of glass bottles, plastic PET bottles and bag-in-box containers, click here.
As sustainability becomes an increasingly important factor in consumer decision-making, it’s important to understand the environmental impact of the products we consume. In this post, we will delve into the pros and cons of each packaging type, examining factors such as energy use, resource depletion, and recyclability. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the environmental impact of these packaging options, empowering you to make more informed decisions about the wine you purchase.
We know that 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%.
Therefore, the wine industry is investing heavily into new types of wine packaging which are lightweight (thereby, requiring less carbon during shipping) and will maximize space in shipping containers better than a round glass bottle. In this paper, we review three types of wine packaging containers; tetra-pak, aluminum cans, and paper bottles. We’ll do our best to follow the environmental impact of these containers from a cradle-to-grave standpoint.
Tetra Pak - wine packaging trends
Tetra Pak is a European (Swedish-Swiss) food packaging giant that turns cardboard into asceptic containers for food. They offer a variety of packaging. You may recognize them from almond milk or soy milk containers on store shelves that are not refrigerated.
Tetra Paks are 75% paper, and the rest is aluminum and polyethylene (plastic).
how consumers feel about Tetra Paks...
Wine has been put in Tetra Pak since at least the 1980’s (see comment at the end of this article). But here in Canada, French Rabbit introduced wine in tetra-pak in 2005 in Ontario to test the market. They released the wine in both the Tetra Pak packaging as well as in bottles. Surprisingly, sales of the Tetra Pak container outpaced bottle sales by 21% in the first month. Considered the most successful launch in the Liquor Board of Ontario’s history, there are now over 75 wines available there in Tetra Paks.
the pros of using tetra-pak for wine...
As the majority of carbon is caused by the storage and shipping of wine. Tetra Paks have a lot going for them.
Unlike bottles that have a narrow neck, it’s rectangular shape means that it maximizes space brilliantly. Furthermore, when perishables are enclosed with Tetra-pak, the product can travel long distances without refrigeration. This saves companies tons of money and saves carbon from being released into the earth’s atmosphere.
Furthermore, 70% of the material for Tetra Pak is already made with recycled materials.
the cons of using Tetra Pak for wine...
Tetra Paks are great for recycling if you live near a plant that recycles them. That generally means if you live in central continental Europe.
For the rest of us, tetra-paks need to be transported large distances by trucks to recycling stations. As far as we can tell, for San Francisco, that means over in Mexico for a 2000-mile journey. For British Columbia, that used to mean to the eastern US. However, a plant recently opened north of Toronto and in Yamachiche, Quebec. (Which is still a 3364 km journey from Vancouver to Toronto or, still over 2000 miles)
If you are talking about Vietnam, Tetra Pak containers are generally thrown out as garbage and 99% of it ends up in the ocean and on the beaches.
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The difference between LCI, LCA and LCIA
How do we calculate the environmental impact of a wine packaging container? The Life Cycle Assessment is a multi-step procedure for calculating the lifetime environmental impact of a product. It includes goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation. The LCI evaluates the quality and completeness of information and its plausibility. The ISO (International Standardization Organization) maps out the procedure in documents ISO 14040 and ISO 14041.
LCI or Life Cycle Inventory is the data collection portion of LCA or the accounting of everything involved in the “system”. It consists of detailed tracking of raw resources or materials, energy by type, water, and emissions to air, water and land. It can be extremely complex and may involve dozens of individual unit processes in a supply chain (e.g., the extraction of raw resources, various primary and secondary production processes, transportation, etc.) as well as hundreds of tracked substances.
The Life Cycle Inventory Assessment is the “what does it mean” step. In LCIA, the overall environmental impact is scrutinized. There are various models for analysing this worldwide. Most useful is the ISO (International Standardization Organization) which uses the ISO 14042 for the assessment and ISO 14043 for analysing different life cycle interpretation methods.
In short, the LCIA is what all companies know and should publish if they have consumers’ interests in mind.
Basically, there is already a recognized great system for evaluating environmental impacts of products and services since at least the 1970’s (the LCA, LCI, and LCIA as detailed in the above box). The system is reevaluated every several years. The last time was in 2016.
We describe them above because It’s important to understand the difference between LCA, LCI, and LCIA in our feedback about Tetra Pak containers below.
the carbon footprint of tetra paks...
Tetra-paks are one of the best packaging for shipping and for low emissions because they are so lightweight and have a retangular construction.
Their Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), that is the data collection of all environmental inputs and burdens remains quite low and Tetra-Pak companies have determined that within the LCI, carbon impacts remain low regardless of how much of the packaging is recycled (in the study for the US and Canada). But…
This is the study of LCI that was done in the markets of Canada and the US. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take into account the transportation costs from delivering the reycling materials to the recycling depots.
In North America, Tetra Pak materials are trucked over long distances to get to the plants that process them. It’s a curious omission since the study says it is compliant with the ISO 14040 and 14041.
And this next part, we’re just going to quote the study because, you can’t make this shit up…
The study uses the low EPA standards (US) for counting carbon and not the ISO (EU) standards
“The carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of wood waste (a fuel used for paperboard production) are not included in the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. By EPA convention, carbon dioxide released by wood combustion is considered part of the natural carbon cycle. In other words, when wood is burned, carbon dioxide consumed by the tree during its growth cycle is returned to the atmosphere, so there is no net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Page ES-10, Life Cycle Inventory of Container Systems for Wine, Final Report Prepared for Tetra Pak, Inc. by Franklin Associates, a Division of ERG Prairie Village, KS, October 2006. You can read the whole thing here.)
We would laugh except it’s just too tragic. Here the study is not complying with the ISO and is instead using a flawed approach by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. The EPA apparently doesn’t believe that burning wood for fuel increases carbon emissions.
Furthermore, most studies of the environmental impact of Tetra Pak are conducted in central continental Europe where there are many facilities that process them. These are also markets which have the highest consumer recycling rates in the world. Therefore, the studies will conclude that Tetra-Paks are great packaging for the environment.
Indeed, they are…in Central Europe.
Either way, let’s be clear, it’s only the paper that gets recycled in Tetra-Pak containers if at all.
During research we found that most of the time, the polyethylene (plastic) and aluminum are not separated from each other. Those materials are separated from the paper, and the paper is downcycled to tissue paper.
What Tetra-Pak says...
According to Tetra-Pak, the plastic and aluminum may be processed together with exceedingly high heat to make sheeting for roofs in India or cement depending on which video you watch. The video made for British Columbia says that the paperboard is recycled and processed but the other layers can be processed.
We went to a recycling station in British Columbia, Canada and asked what happens to materials like Tetra-Pak. No one could answer.
Our final criticism is that it’s not clear if the machines that process the containers are attached to a burning mechanism that filters the air to prevent the respiratory problems that occur from burning plastic.
Again, we assume the recycling process and burning of the materials are well regulated in central continental European countries where Tetra Pak was invented. However, questions arise when Tetra Paks are processed in developing or under-developed countries such as Mexico, Vietnam, and India.
the percentage of Tetra Paks that get recycled...
Sources about the percentage of Tetra Paks that get recycled vary greatly. If you look at the companies website, a rosy picture is painted.
Indeed, central European consumers exercise stellar recycling practices. Here it makes sense to use Tetra Pak. However, conversations with recycling depots in North American and Asia (unofficially) report much lower figures.
In British Columbia, Canada, Encorp Pacific says that 60% of the aseptic containers are returned. The website states that recycling the paper saves 17 trees per ton. However, there is no mention of anything happening with the plastic and aluminum layers. The report mentioned in the next paragraph says that Ontario recycles 13% of Tetra Paks.
Even the LCI report paid for by Tetra Pak only mentions the recycling methodology for the paper board and completely leaves out any mention of the other 2 layers that make up 25% of the material! (page 5-2, the Life Cycle Inventory of Container Systems for Wine, Final Report Prepared for Tetra Pak, Inc. by Franklin Associates, a Division of ERG Prairie Village, KS, October 2006 here.)
The report goes on to say that since that 25% of material is lighter than glass, its environmental impact on leaving it in landfills is lower (which is true, but…they really skimmed over this).
In Vietnam, the literature reads that the plastic and aluminum layer can be turned into roofing tiles.
However, Tien, the vice director on one of two recycling depots that process the used containers says they only make about 5000 tiles per year and only on special request. That’s because the tiles cost twice the price of other roofing materials and there is no demand for them.
Summary - Tetra Paks wine packaging trend...
Overall, this is a hopeful category. The packaging fits in shipping freights perfectly utilizing optimum space. Food stuffs in them do not require refrigeration which lessons the greenhouse gas emissions during shipping. And if you have a bunker and are concerned about the end of the world, you can stock up on wine in Tetra Pak as it will last forever!
Unfortunately, Tetra Pak are a single use packaging which is bothersome because recycling rates of the top reycling countries is only at about 50%. The costs of recycling these aseptic containers is high and it is not profitable for recycling depots to do so. The recycling process, called hydro-pulping is a complex one and its environmental impact is high.
Further, there are risks with exposure to biphenol A and estrogenic activity in the plastics layer. Read more on biphenol A and estrogenic activity in the next section about aluminum below.
Still, until there are more facilities that recycle them throughout the world, this packaging is likely only environmentally sound in central continental Europe. Even the UK closed their recycling plant for Tetra Paks. However, they opened a new one in Halifax in 2014. Previously, in the UK, Tetra-Pak containers went to landfills.
In Vietnam, where financial support from government recycling programs just isn’t there, they say there’s no money to be made in recycling this container.
According to Tetra Pak, Vietnam recycles 20% of it’s Tetra Pak containers. However, according to the vice director of the recycling plant, Phan Quyet Tien, that figure is only 1%. Tien argues Tetra Pak is not economical to process and he requires help from Tetra Pak in order to downcycle more. Instead, most (99%) of Tetra Paks used in Vietnam end up in the oceans and beaches.
This is sad as the company is set to amp up sales of Tetra Pak by 50% (we are talking about milk, in the case of Vietnam, not wine), but still.
Can Tetra Pak's environmental performance improve?
David Allaway, a senior analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, agrees with Tien. He says that consumers have very little leverage when it comes to recycling. He believes the responsibility and costs should shift to the companies that make packaging and profit from them. Indeed, the two countries that have the highest recycling rates in the world, Germany and Austria, operate from a producer responsibility model.
Allaway further argues that companies already know the environmental impacts of all of the products they make and should be forced to make those public. Information such as the toxic emissions, carbon footprint, and the water usage that goes into making packaging need to be addressed. (from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s The Passionate Eye, ‘Plastic Wars’ Episode 164). We would add that companies should be compelled by law to release the LCIA’s of their packaging.
In Tetra Paks case, they publish only the LCI. It just takes a keen eye to notice that they 1) left out aluminum in their comparative study of wine packaging (likely because aluminum’s environmental impact is much lower than Tetra Paks) and 2) didn’t add the carbon emissions from shipping and trucking the materials to reycling plants (which is huge in North America) and 3) don’t consider that carbon from burning wood is a carbon emission and 4) left out examples from developing and underdeveloped countries where the material is burned in the open (without air filters), or left on the beach to end up in the ocean – and what the environmental impacts are from it going straight into the ocean.
The report says it is ISO compliant, but it isn’t fully. They use the EPA’s lower standards for what is considered a carbon emission. Furthermore, it is only the data (the LCI) and not the LCIA which would explain what the data means.
In comparison, the report referenced in the aluminum section below assesses aluminum’s full LCIA. Not only did we not find holes in it. The independent company hired to make sure the study was fully ISO compliant didn’t either.
It’s very sneaky of Tetra Pak to release so much data that is incomplete and faulty. It makes us believe the study is intended to mislead the public. If it’s true, it’s unfortunate that they feel they have to confuse the public because the container has a lot going for it.
Shame, Tetra Pak, shame.
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aluminum - wine packaging trend
how consumers feel about aluminum cans for wine...
Cans as a wine container were once considered not popular with consumers until the industry began targeting female Millennials (those born between 1981-1996 in Canada and the US).
We looked at WICresearch.com, an organization that conducts market research specifically on wine in cans. More recently they found that regardless of consumers’ professed wine knowledge or lack thereof, there was no strong preference between wine served from a bottle or a can. Furthermore, the researchers insist that consumer preference of aluminum cans cuts across the generations and the genders.
the pros of aluminum cans for wine...
Aluminum cans are strong, lightweight and impermeable to both light and gases. They are easily filled while eliminating both the ingress of air and microorganisms.
Yet, the best thing about aluminum cans is their low carbon footprint (more on this below) and the amount of money that recyclers can make from recycling aluminum. Aluminum can scrap is worth $1317 per ton on average (compared to $299 per ton of plastic and $20 per ton of glass).
Because they are lightweight, they are excellent materials for reducing carbon during shipping and transport.
In truth, aluminum cans are the only material in the consumer disposal stream that pays for the cost of collection. This makes it a favourite for municipalities as it effectively covers the cost of other less profitable recyclables.
the cons of aluminum cans for wine...
Like with all other wine packaging trends (except glass), aluminum cans cannot be used for premium wines that require ageing since they are impermeable to air. That’s because wine meant for ageing require a slow ingress of air to age well.
Likewise, with all other wine packaging trends (except glass), aluminum cans must be coated in order to prevent the wine from corroding the aluminum.
health concerns about biphenol A (BPA) and estrogenic activity (EA)...
80% of the epoxy coatings in aluminum cans is bisphenol A (BPA), which at one point the US Food and Drug Administration deemed to be harmful. More recently however, the FDA says that at the current levels of exposure, BPA is safe. But there are still concerns about its use.
What is BPA? It’s an industrial chemical that is used to make plastics and resin.
As there are plastics that are made BPA-free it’s sad to know that only 20% of aluminum cans use BPA-free coatings.
But it gets worse. In 2011, the National Institute of Health 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 be altered.
The worst part is that researchers detected estrogenic activity in over five hundred plastics, including many advertised as BPA free.
Aluminum can manufacturers will say that the level of BPA in cans is miniscule, and that the level passed on to humans from the liquid or food inside a can is even less.
Nevertheless, there are some scientists that disagree.
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. 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?”
BPA and EA are concerns for all containers with a plastic layer; bag-in-box, Tetra Pak, paper bottles and PET bottles.
the carbon footprint of aluminum...
On the upshot, aluminum cans have probably the lowest carbon footprint of all of the containers reviewed (in both Part I and Part II of this feature). You can read the research on ‘Life Cycle Impact Assessment of Aluminum Beverage Cans’ here.
This is because most of the carbon emissions come from the production of the primary aluminum, not from recycling.
The cans are baled, melted and back on the shelf again as cans within 6 weeks. The material never degrades no matter how many times it is reused. In truth, 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. This saves a lot of raw material, plus it takes 95% less energy to manufacture a new can from recycled aluminum than it does to make it from brand new material.
the percentage of aluminum cans that get recycled...
In British Columbia, Canada consumers take 80% of aluminum cans to the recyling depot. Americans return 49.2% of aluminum cans – and this is the most recycled container in the country.
This is the only material that makes money in recycling and uses 95% less energy to recycle aluminum cans than to make cans from new material.
Summary of aluminum wine packaging trend
All wine packaging, with the exception of glass bottles, contains plastics. So you could consider it unfair that we placed our diatribe of the health concerns surrounding BPA and EA under the aluminum category. We could have included it under paper bottles below or under Tetra Paks above (or under bag-in-box such as in our other post here).
Although aluminum cans are single use, they are the only material that pays for the cost of recycling and often covers the cost of all other recycled material brought to depots. As companies make money from buying used aluminum, very little of it ends up in our oceans and landfills (as opposed to Tetra Pak, bag-in-box, or PET bottles).
In fact, 75% of all aluminum ever mined is still in use today. This is in complete juxtaposition to the only 10% of all plastics ever downcycled throughout its inception.
And let’s be clear, plastics are downcycled, they are not remade into plastic again. Aluminum can be remade into cans over and over again.
Truthfully, it is our position that for the environment, aluminum is the best wine packaging out there – all things considered.
Could they invent a square-shaped aluminum packaging to make it better for optimizing shipping space? Probably not. But although cans don’t maximize space as well as rectangular packaging, they are still better than glass bottles with their long necks at conserving space.
paper bottles - wine packaging trend
Paper bottles are the newest wine packaging on the market. It’s made of reycled paper with a food grade liner inside (that means, a layer of single use plastic).
how consumers feel about paper bottles...
We don’t know how consumers feel about paper bottles yet as they have just arrived to market.
the pros of using paper bottles for wine...
Interestingly, the bottles can be produced at the winery and we assume that the initial materials sent there are flattened. This will make for extreme carbon savings as it takes the smallest packaging space when going to the winery.
Paper bottles are lightweight; this will mean less greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.
They weigh 83 grams for a 750 ml bottle, according to the media release in Decanter magazine. However, the same article says the new paper bottles weigh less than plastic PET bottle. That’s just not true according to our research.
the cons of using paper bottles for wine...
As it is the same shape as glass bottles, the long neck does not maximize space while shipping to consumers (tetra-paks, bag-in-box, and aluminum perform better in this regard).
The plastic liners will be single use plastics and likely many will end of in the ocean or in landfills.
The company that makes the bottles claims that the liner is reyclable. This is likely false. Even most plastics that have the recycling symbol on them are not recyclable, or downcyclable even.
But as mentioned above, all plastics leech chemicals that mimic estrogen (see more under aluminum).
the carbon footprint of paper bottles...
The paper bottle is 5x lighter than a glass bottle which conserves energy during shipping and transport.
For shape, they waste a lot of space in shipping containers due to their long neck.
the percentage of paper bottles that get recycled ...
As paper bottles are new to the industry, we can’t say how many of them consumers will recycle. The UK inventor of the paper bottles, Frugalpac, says they can be easily recycled. But, we seriously doubt that.
In truth, the paper can be downcycled into tissue paper. That plastic liner could be downcycled, but most likely won’t be.
Summary of paper bottles wine packaging trend...
For us, this new wine packaging trend is a marketing gimick and nothing else. It causes the same problems as any other single use packaging; it will end up in landfills and oceans. It’s lightweight but so are Tetra Pak, bag-in-box, and aluminum. But unlike those other three, the paper bottle wastes space during shipping.
68% of the carbon footprint of wine comes from wine packaging and transport, namely in the export of heavy 750 ml glass bottles.
In this article, we compared Tetra Pak, aluminum cans and paper bottles as a way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.
Tetra Pak is a hopeful wine packaging container as it is super lightweight, fits perfectly as rectangles for shipping and 75% of the materials (the paper) can potentially be recycled.
We’re not happy with the sneaky way Tetra Pak tried to hide problems in the recycling chain and we’d like to see the full Life Cycle Inventory Assessments published.
Aluminum seems to be the clear winner as the material is most likely to be reycled and doing so doesn’t use a lot of energy. Although, there are concerns with the resin protective layer in aluminum, it won’t end up in oceans and landfills.
We really don’t see how adding paper bottles as a wine packaging container makes any sense.
We doubt any plastic layer in any wine packaging container will ever get recycled or downcycled. In fact, since plastics inception, less than 10% of it has ever been recycled. Click on the link in the next paragraph to read more.
However, we also support glass bottles because they are the only packaging that allows wines to age. You can read our previous post which discusses glass, bag-in-box and PET bottles here.
If you have some new information we didn’t uncover in our research, please let us know in the comments below.
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