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Rethinking the wine bottle for the future

With climate change at the forefront of many people's minds, the search for an environmentally-friendly wine bottle is an important consideration for the wine industry.

There’s been a focus on making wine production less energy intensive as well as environmentally friendly in order to address climate change.

The efforts continue but, as is the case for electric cars where it’s the battery technology that needs innovating, it’s in wine bottles where we’re seeing rapid change. It comes in a two-pronged attack to reduce energy use in manufacturing and then an even bigger emphasis on reducing bottle weight for shipping to reduce fuel usage and thus CO2 production. The end result is that the wine drinker of the future may find the glass bottle a rarity.

The latest innovation comes with the commercial launch of Green Gen Technology’s new bottles manufactured from flax. At the 2022 edition of Prowein, they announced that Cognac producer, A de Fussigny has started using their bottles and later in the year, winery Maison Wessman based in Bordeaux, France will start as well.

Their construction is an innovative fibre weave that’s coated internally with an rPET, food safe liner that can safely contain a liquid of up to 95% alcohol. Resembling something akin to a classic Luxardo Maraschino bottle in appearance, they’ve been intensively developing their production method since 2019.

The bottles’ advantage over traditional glass is their use of abundant, non-energy-intensive flax as the core component and being 2-3 times lighter than an average glass bottle. Founder, James de Roany additionally told Decanter, ‘The goal is to produce the bottle in a plant next to an electrified railway to have the lowest possible carbon footprint in Southwest France to enable us to feed into the French, Spanish and Italian markets.’ From there, they plan to build plants on other continents to serve other local markets as well.

Similarly, Frugalpac have created a new paper bottle with a lightweight plastic liner for wines with their production based in Ipswich, UK. They’ve launched with Italian wine producer, Cantina Goccia. The resulting bottles are very lightweight at a mere 83g as compared to the lightest of glass bottles at roughly 350g. Additionally, the content of the bottles is produced from 84% post-consumer content and, once disassembled by customers, the bottle is 94% recyclable.

Their ultimate goal however isn’t to be a bottle producer but to actually create the machines and install them in locations globally. As founder Malcolm Waugh told Decanter, ‘We currently have more than 55 enquiries to buy our Frugal Bottle Assembly Machines and each one can make 2.5 million bottles a year.’

When it comes to producers there are those like Accolade Wines, who, despite being an Australian company are the largest wine producer in Europe. They’re very aware that given their 267 million litres in annual production, any small change made will have a massive impact due to the sheer scale of their production levels.

Accolade CMO, Sandy Mayo told Decanter that for their Australian wines, ‘We’re already shipping in bulk to the UK to bottle them at The Park in Bristol which is run both carbon neutral as well as a “zero waste” facility.’ They do however produce bottled wines throughout Europe, including the Banrock Station line which they’re now releasing in a 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottle, with a very slimmed-down bottle that weighs just 63g, an 87% saving over the average traditional glass bottle.

Even famed luxury brand producer, LVMH has started releasing their Côtes-de-Provence Galoupet Nomade rosé in a 100% post-consumer waste, flat plastic bottle. Additionally, their Château Galoupet rosé is being sold in a bottle that weighs 499g as opposed to the heavier average of 770g for rosé wines from the region.

On the surface, plastic and plastic-lined non-glass formats would seem the most promising new formats given that it takes 200°C to melt plastic for fabrication instead of 1,500°C for glass. This, along with reduced fuel usage for transportation helps to greatly reduce CO2 production in the wine trade.

Glass will, however, remain for some time despite these changes. The main reason is that the producers of all these new formats of bottles, whether flax based, paper, or fully plastic have a proposed shelf life of 12-18 months which is the standard supermarket turnaround time. Thus, wines designed for long ageing won’t work in these new formats, although these represent the minority of the market at just 20%.

There is a larger issue at stake which is the plastic lining within bottles such as Frugalpac or those of Accolade and LVMH in that recycling of plastic remains paltry to that of glass. Currently glass sees recycling rates in the form of re-used ‘cullet’ of up to 70%. This is the current reality in place in Europe. Plastic recycling, globally, is under 10% of all plastic waste produced, with roughly 85% of all plastic currently ending up in landfills according to the United Nations Environment Programme. And this is despite plastic containers being very much part of our lives for at least 30 years.

A full shift to plastic for this 80% of the wines drank within 12 months of release could potentially end up like Samoa where Coca-Cola’s decision to switch from glass to plastic bottles has had a massive negative impact on the local environment.

It’s very easy for people in Western countries to see wine bottles with a plastic base as a potential solution given that the resulting waste has remained out of sight for a long time due to its being shipped to countries that would accept it (thus incurring additional carbon usage) and where it is then often burned (incurring CO2 and toxic pollutants in the process).

Until the supply chain for plastic-based bottles is rectified, there are ways to improve glass usage. While recycling figures are very high, they can continue to improve, but more importantly, there is the possibility of reusing bottles. This can potentially see the same bottles reused 8-10 times for labelled wine bottles (and up to 13 times for a bottle with no label). A pilot program in Catalunya, Spain called ReWine proved this use case, but also showed issues for improvement in its supply chain given that the bottles had to be shipped 500km to be washed. The recommendation was to build local bottle washing plants which would massively reduce environmental impact.

The state of California has also seen fit to just pass State Senate Bill 1013 in May, 2022 that allows wine bottles to be reused in the same manner as beer and other drink containers. There is great potential savings in this change as if California were a country, it would be the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, and the state is also a massive wine consumer, drinking over 500 million litres a year.

There is clearly no single solution currently in place for contending with the containers of wine that fully meets the needs to address climate change. It is, however, perilous to promote one singular approach as when looking on a global scale there are often many hurdles that need to be addressed to make it truly environmentally friendly. There is some reassurance that multiple aspects of the wine industry are working on this issue and both enterprise and consumer realise that the age-old wine bottle is due for an update.

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