Glass dismissed?

3 March 2020 See the end of this article for a response from FEVE – the European Container Glass Federation.

29 February 2020 A shorter version of this plea for a rethink on how wine is packaged is published by the Financial Times.

Wine should come in a glass bottle, right? Actually, wrong if wine drinkers want to do their bit for the planet’s resources and environment. Glass bottles and their transport are the two biggest contributors to wine’s carbon footprint, as spelt out in Dr Richard Smart’s Carbon footprints, wine and the consumer.

Sustainability is today’s buzz word but it’s a hugely complex issue. Most wine producers have tended to act as though using fewer agrochemicals in the vineyard will do the trick, and it’s certainly an excellent idea, but it's only a start.

Those wine companies and organisations that have taken the trouble to perform a proper carbon audit on their activities have generally been surprised to learn that their biggest culprits as far as emissions go have nothing to do with wine production. Carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation and at the moment hardly any wineries capture that carbon, although the technology exists to do it. But even that is as nothing compared with the carbon footprint of packaging and transport.  

The exact proportion of emissions accounted for by each of these elements varies enormously according to what kind of container the wine is packaged in and how it travels, but in every audit, such as those commissioned by the California Wine Institute and that undertaken by the Australian Wine Research Institute, glass bottles and their transport have been the two most culpable factors. 

We are all now being encouraged to eat and drink local. But how wine (or anything else) is transported is much more significant than the distance it travels.

At least wine has a relatively long life. Unlike fish and vegetables, it does not need to be transported in a hurry. Although that doesn’t stop fine-wine merchants regularly sending bottles around the globe by the most pernicious form of transport, by air, because an oligarch needs them in a hurry, or so as to minimise the chances of their being exposed to dangerously high temperatures.

If wine drinkers want to do their bit to cut down on carbon emissions, it’s no good simply buying wine that is produced closest to them. Road transport is much, much less effective in carbon-emission terms than shipping by rail or sea. And shipping wine in bulk is much more virtuous from the perspective of the future of the planet than transporting heavy, fragile, inconveniently shaped glass containers around the world.

Wine bottles can be beautiful things. The very shape can be enough to set a wine lover’s palate tingling in anticipation. Wine has been packaged in glass for more than four centuries (amphorae, jars, skins and barrels before that). Glass manufacturers Ricketts of Bristol developed a machine that would make bottles of a uniform shape and size as recently as the early nineteenth century. But that shape, a straight-sided cylinder with a narrow neck, is very wasteful of space. Think how much more wine could be transported in a pallet if it were packed in cartons or pouches. And how much lighter would be the cargo if the wine were packaged in a can.

The most sustainable way of shipping wine is by sea in a tanker. A wine shipped in bulk to New York from Australia could easily have a lower carbon footprint than one trucked in bottle from California (though behemoth Gallo has long shipped wine across the country by rail). A container of bulk wine holds two and half times as much wine as a container packed with conventional 75-cl bottles. It may sound dreadfully unromantic, but the technology of bulk shipping of wine has improved beyond recognition in the last few years, as has the expertise of professional wine bottlers in major wine-importing countries in northern Europe.

Partly in an effort to shave pennies off the selling price of a bottle of wine, and partly with a nod to sustainability, British supermarkets had turned massively to UK bottling even before the fall in sterling after the Brexit referendum. The trend has been definitively strengthened by the fact that it is now considerably cheaper to bottle in the UK than in, for instance, the US, even before shipping costs are factored in. So much so that as much as 45% of all still wine (sparkling wine pretty much has to be transported in bottle) imported into the UK arrives in bulk. (A code preceded by a W on the back label denotes a wine bottled in the UK.) And Britain’s specialist bottlers argue that their bottling technology, having been developed and installed so much more recently, results in much more consistent wine, with much lower levels of harmful oxygen, than the bottling equipment typically used in a producer’s cellar.

UK supermarkets Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have invested considerably in alternatives to glass bottles for wine. At M&S the proportion of wine sold in a container other than a glass bottle has reached 10%, with pouches and 25-cl bottles made out of PET plastic proving particularly popular. Standard 75-cl plastic bottles have so far failed to take off, however. M&S wine buyers predict a bright future for cans, which are already selling particularly well in the US. Canned wine was included in a list of just eight ‘best sectors for launching a business in 2018’ by Inc Magazine, along with influencer agencies.

Bijou Le Chic pouch of Languedoc rose wine

As part of their attempt to cut down on packaging generally, M&S’s bag in box has become just a bag, without the cardboard outer. Waitrose’s best seller last summer was Bijou Le Chic, the squishy, pretty 150-cl pouch of southern French rosé shown above, although it is being redesigned with a white plastic tap rather than a black one. Black taps are being eliminated by all environmentally conscious retailers because they don’t stand out on the black, optically sorted conveyor belts used by recyclers.

Most of us wine drinkers religiously put our empty glass bottles in the recycling bin, but the proportion of wine bottles that end up being reused is woefully low (about 50% in the UK and 30% in the US, though 89% in Ontario, with recycling itself using up energy). Issues are myriad, including colour of glass. Green glass is most effectively recycled in the UK. We can also recycle our corks via recorkeduk.org.

Most wine producers today have got the message that heavy bottles are far from clever but there are still pockets of resistance among some American and Chinese consumers and producers in Spanish-speaking countries. 330 g is about the lightest weight for a serviceable 75-cl wine bottle but some importers and marketeers are still insisting on impenetrably dark glass that weighs closer to a kilo, and disguises the level left in the bottle.

It is probably the case that glass is the most suitably inert material for fine wine designed to age. I am not so idealistic as to imagine that Bordeaux’s smartest châteaux are going to start shipping their wines around in tankers (although Chx Smith Haut Lafitte and Montrose, admirably, have taken steps to capture the carbon given off by their fermentations). But it would make a massive difference to wine’s impact on the earth’s atmosphere if glass bottles were dispensed with for everyday, mass-market wine, the sort of wine that constitutes by far the greatest volume of wine sold, much of which is produced by a handful of big companies.

Those living in wine regions can do their bit by taking their own container to fill up at a winery. And elsewhere recyclable kegs provide a virtuous solution for restaurants and bars serving wine by the glass, with no diminution of wine quality in my experience. 

What is needed is a major change in consumers’ perceptions of glass bottles. As my fellow wine writer and host of The Wine Show Joe Fattorini, whose wife is Swedish, puts it: ‘Flygskam, or “flight shame", has reduced Swedish flight passengers by 9%. Maybe we need flaskaskam, or bottle shame.’

Alternatives to glass

These are all designed for wine that is consumed no more than a few months after purchase, which is the case for about 95% of all wine sold. Work continues on trying to make these recyclable.

Cans Lined aluminium that is not completely inert. Pioneered in the US by film director Francis Ford Coppola for his less expensive California wines.

Pouches Made of polyethylene and aluminium. The finest wine I have encountered in a pouch is Le Grappin’s burgundies in what they call a bagnum, a 150-cl magnum in a pouch, which they reckon keeps wine fresh for about six months. See legrappin.com.

Bag in box This is effectively a pouch in a carton and has been particularly popular in Australia and Sweden. But the cardboard outer is increasingly being dispensed with in an attempt to reduce packaging.

PET plastic bottles Usually made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. Lets in some oxygen after a few months but it's light and non-breakable. Garçon Wines have developed the groundbreaking, almost-flat wine bottle made from recycled and recyclable PET pictured at the top of this article and are planning to go into production in the US, with packaging giant Amcor. Already produced in the UK.

Cartons Made mainly of recyclable cardboard and very space efficient. They have long been popular in South America.

Kegs Very effective, particularly for bars and restaurants. Cleanable, recyclable stainless-steel cylinders equipped with piped inert gas to keep the wine fresh.

Tubes Test tube-like packaging in either glass or PET  for single-serve portions that would save enormously for professional samples.

***

 

Michel Giannuzzi,  President of FEVE – the European Container Glass Federation, writes from Brussels.

Dear Jancis,

At the European Container Glass Federation, we have read your article Why it’s time to cut back on glass wine bottles (Financial Times, 21 February) and would like to clarify some important elements. As one of the world’s foremost wine connoisseurs, you would appreciate that wine texture or structure is not just a matter of ingredients, but alchemy in which packaging plays a key part. Glass has a lot to offer. No other packaging materials come close to glass for recyclability, health, and taste preservation. But as an industry, we are committed to doing more to increase the sustainability of glass.

It is a fact that glass production is energy-intensive and generates emissions, and we are strongly committed to address these limits by continuously investing in research and innovation and implement practical solutions. Despite being the old kid on the block, glass is already today -30% lighter, 70% less energy-intensive and emits 50% less COthan 50 years ago. As we speak, we are exploring new breakthrough technologies to make production carbon-neutral, and forging partnerships throughout the value chain to ensure that we maximise recycled content for use in new production loops. Further improving the carbon footprint of the industry is a challenge that requires a collective effort, and this is why we work hand-in-hand with all stakeholders, from suppliers to local communities, political decision-makers, and our customers.

Latest industry figures put collection rates at 68% in the UK, placing glass head and shoulders above alternatives of plastic pouches or cartons (whose recycling is almost impossible due to the use of several materials glued together like plastic or aluminium). Reusable glass is indeed part of our industry’s journey toward carbon neutrality, with bottles that can be used up to 50 times before being recycled for a new production; fortunately, for those not lucky enough to live in proximity to a vineyard, Europe’s extensive spread of glass packaging manufacturing plants means that bottle supplied for our customers are at a short distance. Raw materials like sand are also sustainably and locally sourced at less than 300 km from the glassworks, dramatically reducing the carbon footprint.

In short, glass is a brilliant material that deserves a complete analysis compared to its competitors. We’ve outlined some further points in the attached document, and we hope that you will be eager to restore glass to its rightful place.

We’d like to take this opportunity to invite you on a trip to one of our production locations at your convenience, where you can see how glass packaging is produced, recycled and used to bottle one of the wines you love.

Flat plastic wine bottles from Garcon Wines