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Jefford on Monday: Trouble with bottles

Andrew Jefford weighs up an alternative to glass...

Jefford on Monday: Trouble with bottles

Back in October, a scientifically minded, environmentally conscious acquaintance was in a Tesco car park near Penzance in Cornwall. He was loading some bottles of wine into his car, while the woman in the car next to his was unloading empty bottles for recycling. That set him thinking.

You melt sand to make glass, and you melt glass to recycle it: both processes require colossal heat (1,700˚C to make glass, and around 1,500˚C to recycle it). The glass itself is heavy, and will certainly have moved hundreds and sometimes (when a wine is bottled at source) thousands of miles between manufacture, filling and delivery. Nine out of ten bottles of wine are drunk immediately after purchase, so all that is really needed is some kind of light, short-term container to get wine from the local supermarket to the consumer’s wine glass at home; every other stage of the journey could be accomplished in a bulk container with a much smaller carbon footprint than glass. The process, my friend concluded, was insane, putting thousands of needless tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

He’s right: well over 100,000 tonnes for the UK alone every year. How can we improve matters?

Given the choice consumers expect, it’s not practical to sell wine from bulk containers in local supermarket branches, even though that would be the environmental ideal. Most wine, by contrast, could certainly be shipped in bulk to the relevant country of consumption, and only packaged prior to retail distribution. Packaged, though, in what?

Maybe one day we will drink wine poured from from carbon nanotubes (rolled-up graphene), but for the time being, the main low-weight, low-carbon alternatives to glass are plastic bottles, bag-in-box cartons and cardboard cartons – or rather plastic-coated paper of the kind used in Tetra Pak (aseptic) packaging.

All of these alternatives are much lighter than glass, and have a lower manufacturing carbon footprint – so they’re a dramatic improvement on glass. Those who care about the environment would favour them, all other things being equal. Not all plastic can be recycled, though, and Tetra Pak cartons are complicated to recycle, since they contain aluminium as well as plastics and paper. The bladders and taps of bag-in-box packaging, too, pose recycling problems.

plastic wine bottles

Garçon Wines bottle in case.

I have, though, in front of me a plastic bottle which is not only totally recyclable, but which is also made wholly from recycled plastic (PET or polyethylene terephthalate) in the first place. It looks elegant (I’ve never said that before about a plastic bottle) and weighs just 60g, compared to 550g for the average glass bottle. It’s very easy to stack efficiently (which would save yet more carbon via delivery reductions), and it is eminently postable; indeed it can even slip through the average UK postbox, making it perfect for gifting in our age of on-line purchase.

Santiago Navarro is the serial entrepreneur behind it. I last wrote about Navarro almost seven years ago, in a column about one of his previous companies, Vinopic (an online wine merchant based on the idea that wines could be marketed not just for their oganoleptic qualities but for their health benefits, as assessed by cardiac research specialist Professor Roger Corder). Since then, he has founded the hotel-booking app Nightly – and now Garçon Wines, to create and fill his PET bottles.

The plastic bottle came about after he met music industry executive Joe Revell. Revell wanted to create ‘a Graze for wine’ (Graze is a UK-based snacks-by-mail company), and the initial challenge was to come up with an easily postable bottle which resembled the real thing, looked good on a table but which could still be delivered, even if the recipient was out. It took the pair a while to reach the final design – and they were then stymied further as no one would help with developing the project with major finance or a commitment to take millions of bottles.

The chance to feature on the CNBC business news TV channel series ‘Pop Up Start Up’, backed by Alibaba, gave them other media coverage – and suddenly the big plastics companies who had spurned their advances became interested. The pair now have roving consultant winemaker Barry Dick MW on board to find them wines to put into the bottles – but interest in the bottle designs themselves (they have 20 available, with intellectual property protection in 34 countries) means that Navarro is considering whether to refocus the company towards bottle supply rather than retail. Spirit producers are interested, too.

“Ultimately,” says Navarro, “our aim is to be the Tetra-Pak for drinks packaging.” According to Barry Dick, there are “interested parties willing and excited to take on the challenge of filling this unique bottle”, and the first finished wines should become available early in 2018.

I love the aesthetics of the bottle, its stackability, its low carbon footprint and its practicality – a six-pack of wine filled in the Garçon bottle weighs just five kilos, which is easy enough for most of us to carry home from the shops. Indeed in suitably designed packaging you could carry 12 bottles without much difficulty. My only reservation is that it’s made of plastic: ubiquitous, polluting and unloveable.

“It bothers me,” said Navarro, “that plastic is just called plastic. There’s some very good plastic out there and some stinkingly bad plastic too, and it’s about time that we called them out for what they are. You wouldn’t compare an old diesel banger to a Tesla.” I put it to him, though, that rising concern about environmental plastic (especially in the oceans) might make even the best plastics a kind of pariah packaging in the years ahead. He accepted that was a risk, though pointed out that our societies are so reliant on plastic at present that any complete phase-out would be decades away. “I think there’s a lot more space for taking plastic out of the system and re-using it – and our bottles are a great example of that. Remember we’re not creating any plastic.”

PET has a technical failing in that it doesn’t have the same oxygen barrier properties that glass has, so the Garçon Wines bottle has an oxygen scavenger inside it. This gives the wine inside a shelf life of 12 to 18 months – or roughly the same, according to Barry Dick, as a bag-in-box package. “I would not,” cautions Dick, “recommend ageing a wine in the postable PET bottle”. The design and lightness of the bottle, too, poses problems for existing bottling lines, though Dick managed this with conventionally shaped PET bottles for Sainsburys, and is confident these problems can be overcome. Plastic may be recyclable, but it’s not biodegradable in the way that an ideal container would be.

It’s not, thus, the wine container of our dreams, but our problems with carbon mean that we may not have time to wait for that. Something like 33 billion glass bottles will be used for wine around the world in 2018 – and the grotesque carbon footprint of almost all of them is unnecessary. This bottle could help.

Read more Jefford on Monday columns here.


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