Monday, November 21, 2022

Wine packaging is going to change,
sooner rather than later

Occasionally (ie once a month), some pundit starts to pontificate about the future of the wine industry, using some sort of crystal ball. They opine on different wine styles (eg natural wines) and upcoming regions (or old countries re-born), or consider the increasing importance of wine coolers and other mixed drinks (RTD). They also worry about inflation, rising competition from cannabis farming, and continual government investigations of distributors and retailers.

However, we do not need a crystal ball to realize that one thing for sure in the future is going to involve reducing the so-called “carbon footprint” of producing and selling wine. The world has finally gotten the message, after at least a century (You were first warned about global warming 110 years ago), that we are rapidly creating a world that we cannot easily live in. The blanket of carbon and nitrogen compounds that currently surrounds our planet has got to be reduced, and sooner rather than later. * Otherwise, Climate Change will simply increase in effect, with extreme weather events becoming ever more frequent and harmful (eg. floods in some places and droughts in others). **

So, there is now a lot being written about the word "sustainability", although it has been noted that “the term is often misused and rarely completely understood” (What does sustainability in wine actually mean?). There are, however, formal initiatives such as Sustainable Winegrowing Australia, which try to develop usefully sustainable systems. (NB: there are several others of these, as well.)

The SWA has released their 2021 Impact Report, which describes one general approach. Sadly, while it does talk about reducing “excess packaging”, it fails to mention that packaging is itself the biggest issue of all. To this end, it was recently noted (The new old wine bottle technology):
It has been broadly accepted that biggest contribution to a wine’s carbon footprint comes, not from vineyard or cellar practices, but from the energy deployed during the manufacturing and transportation of the glass bottle itself, from factory to end-drinker. Conservative estimates say that glass bottles account for about 29 percent of a wine's carbon pollution, but other estimates posit that the bottle is responsible for up to 70 percent of a wine’s impact.
So, there seems to be no doubt that wine packaging, in general, is going to change, from now on. The fancy stuff may still be packaged in the old way, by the high-status producers; but the stuff that the rest of us drink will either be in reusable bottles or not in bottles at all. For example:
Across the world, a movement toward reusing wine bottles is gathering force. In some ways, it seems strange that it has taken so long. But in reality, it hasn't — we just abandoned the practice when technology, convenience and abundant supply allowed us to.
Even British wine professionals (>50 of them) have gotten the message (Leading wine professionals sign letter calling for alternative packaging), that:
switching from glass to alternative formats could save ‘well over a third of the carbon footprint of wine consumed in the UK’ – the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road overnight. Alternative formats, such as boxed wine, canned wine, kegs, paper bottles and pouches, all have much a smaller carbon footprint than glass.

CO2 impact of wine package types

However, we have known all of this for at least a decade. That is, the information needed for us to be proactive has already been available to us. Nevertheless, only recently does it seem to have become important for producer actions to be proposed. That is (Thirst for sustainability permeates the wine industry):
Vineyards and wineries are increasingly considering how to adopt more sustainable practices in every aspect of how they farm, the products they create, and the services and methods they utilize. The list of factors that can be altered to allow for increased sustainability range from vineyard farming practices to the winery workings, to the distribution of the final packaged goods.
Perhaps the most comprehensive presentation of the available packaging options, and their environmental “costs”, appeared a dozen years ago (August 2010):
Nordic Life Cycle Assessment Wine Package Study
This was prepared on behalf of Systembolaget and Vinmonopolet, the two national alcohol retailers for Sweden and Norway, respectively. This is one of the advantages of having national retailers (see also Wine monopolies, and the availability of wine), that co-ordinated action can be taken (unlike, for example, in the U.S.A., with its fragmented market and notoriously problematic three-tier system).

The report is nothing if not both comprehensive and detailed. There are 180 pages of data tables and graphs, along with oodles of text. The bottom line about packaging is very simple, though:
The comparative analysis has been performed on five indicators: global warming potential, air acidification, abiotic depletion, primary energy, and water consumption ... Most of the environmental impacts of a packaging system are related to the following aspects: primary and secondary packaging, distribution, and end-of-life [waste management] ... Most of the environmental impacts are related to the production of the raw materials used in the packaging systems. The most important contributor is primary packaging, [and] glass seems to be the most impacting system for all the indicators studied in the comparative analysis.

Given that this report emanated from Scandinavia, it should come as no surprise that it is the Nordic retailers who are leading the way forward (Can the Nordic monopolies turn the drinks world green?). *** There are five national alcohol retailers involved:
Sweden’s Systembolaget, Finland’s Alko, Norway’s Vinmonopolet, Iceland’s Vínbúðin and the Faroe Islands’ Rúsdrekkasøla Landsins have collectively announced a plan to become beverage business leaders in sustainable development. The specific target is for 2030 CO2 emissions to be half their 2019 levels. This will involve actions at every stage of the production, packaging and distribution processes, and will involve consumers as well as industry professionals.
That is, these retailers are putting their money where their mouths are. What about everyone else in the wine industry? It is easy in northern Europe to take collective action, but the rest of the world may not find it quite so straightforward, without official government mandates. From now on, though, so-called “alternative packaging” (eg. What is the future of alternative wine packaging?) will no longer be just theoretical alternatives.

* Excess nitrogen in wastewater is just as bad, from both human urine and faeces. For example: Eating too much protein makes pee a problem pollutant in the U.S.

** The Russian government seems to be the only one currently claiming that Climate Change will be of benefit to them; but in practice this seems to be an unlikely outcome (A hotter Russia). By the way, did you know that: Climate change is making it more expensive to insure art?

*** Nordic = Scandinavia (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) + Finland.

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