Monday, August 21, 2023

The modern (sustainable?) world of wine packaging

Everyone in the modern world knows about Climate Change and its basic cause (increased human production of so-called Greenhouse Gases, notably CO2. So, there are now explicit governmental directives to address this issue (e.g. EU reaches new milestone to make all new cars and vans zero-emission from 2035), although we do not know whether these will be effective anywhere near fast enough.

Packaging objectives

In this regard, there recently has been a rash of articles about the long-term sustainability of the packaging used in the wine industry (see the list below). If we wish to address the issue of the wine industry’s impact on the world’s climate, then change can’t happen overnight; and so we need to act sooner rather than later.

So, the world’s top wine-producing countries, including France, Italy, the U.S.A., Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, have pledged to have carbon dioxide (CO2) net zero-emission by 2050; and >50% of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine comes from the packaging. Sadly, we have recently been told (Global beverage industry lags behind green targets) that: “the global beverage industry ... is not currently on course to meet either its 2030 or 2050 greenhouse gas targets.”

For wine-making itself, there has been the expansion of organic and biodynamic production, and the emergence of ‘natural’ orange and pet nat styles. However, for wine’s packaging we have always had the same basic four options: glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard; and there has also been the option of re-using (ie. re-filling) the containers. How do these options compare?

To find out, the five Nordic government-owned alcohol retailers have launched a joint program to combat climate change. They have (Can the Nordic monopolies turn the drinks world green?): “combined forces to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. These countries have a high rate of recycling and acceptance of alternative packaging.” As part of this effort, Alko (from Finland) and Systembolaget (from Sweden) have done life-cycle analyses of alternative packaging to determine the volume of carbon produced when manufacturing and using each packaging option.

The resulting data were (in g CO2 e / l):
  • Glass bottle        722
  • Light glass bottle  523
  • PET bottle          283
  • Returnable bottle   110
  • Can                 163
  • Bag-in-box           70
  • Paper packaging     84
  • Plastic bag         141

As we might suspect, a standard wine bottle is the worst of all — it can weigh >900 grams, while the lightest glass wine bottles on the market now dip down below 400 g. So, this standard bottle CO2 “cost” is what the wine industry needs to work on for the future, because around 40% of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine comes from the glass bottle itself.

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that glass recycling is often quite successful, as shown in this graph for the European Union (Recycling rates in Europe: glass lags behind in Germany). This matters, because manufacturing a bottle from recycled material involves much less heat, and thus generates far less CO2. Recycling is thus an essential part of any sustainable system.

European Union recycling rates

There are all sorts of sustainable–packaging initiatives that have recently been proposed within the wine industry. For example, these articles will bring you up to date:

One important question, though, is where are we at the moment? What progress has already been made? In this regard, we have been told (How canned wine is attracting new drinkers) that: “We are also seeing huge interest in cans from the Nordic countries, especially Sweden which has  a sustainability focus to their wine buying habits and are much more adventurous with alternative wine packaging.” So, we could do worse than look at the current data for Sweden, to see where the advance guard currently might be.

I have therefore delved into Sweden's Systembolaget database, and come up with the following table. The packaging types are the rows, and the alcohol types are the columns, with the number of SKUs being the contents of the cells. As you can see, there are getting on for a total of 24,000 SKUs, with the vast majority of them being standard glass bottles. This does not indicate much progress, as yet!

Systemet SKUs by package type

There are some light-glass bottles in the list, and a few PET bottles (there is a refundable deposit on the latter). Fortunately, almost all of these are wines. There are 10% as many cans as bottles (there is also a refundable deposit on these), although almost all of them beers, not wines. Bag-in-box and paper packaging, however, both focus on wines, few as they are.

Interestingly, the (non-can, non-PET) returnable containers are for beers. However, Erica Landin-Löfving has noted (Could reuse be the future of wine packaging?): “When I was a child in Sweden, we had refillable wine bottles. Not in the Italian or French sense where you brought your bottles and refilled; instead we returned bottles to monopoly stores and they cleaned and refilled them like milk bottles.” Those days are long gone, apparently. Remember, re-use involves a 90% reduction in carbon emissions, and it does not produce waste, nor does the product involve a shelf life.

CO2 costs of packaging

Anyway, it does seem that the global beverage industry is, indeed, not currently on course to meet its greenhouse gas targets. Even the keen countries (like Sweden) do not have access to the sorts of modern (sustainable) wine packaging that they would like / need. So, let's get into it!

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