Glass bottles have been the standard for storing wine since the 17th century. But where does the glass come from, and what happens to the bottle after you’re done?
“Glass is really simple,” says Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute. “It’s silica sand—which is not necessarily the same as beach sand—limestone and either soda ash or some other kind of binding element.”
Winemakers in the U.S. often source these raw materials from Canada or states in the Southwest or Great Lakes region. They’re then transported by rail or truck to glass production plants, most of which are located close to either the raw materials or their end market. For wine, many bottle manufacturers are located on the West Coast, where the majority of wine production happens.
“The vast majority of the glass used in the United States is made [in the U.S.],” says DeFife. “Glass is a little heavier, so it tends not to travel as far and as often.” He estimates that 25–30% of food and beverage glass is imported into the US.
The complicated journey from barrel to bottle
Glass manufacturing plants operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Larger wineries purchase directly from manufacturers. Smaller wineries usually go through wholesalers.
Once glass is produced, bottles get shipped either directly to the winery or may be repackaged by an intermediary and distributed in smaller portions. For wineries, a logistical dance follows.
“I don’t have any place to store glass when it shows up, so it’s got to show up several days in front of bottling, and it’s got to show up in a certain order to fit the bottling schedule,” says Marty Clubb, managing director at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Washington. “It all has to be highly coordinated.”
Once wine is bottled, a limited amount may remain onsite. The rest will be sent to various storage locations or distribution centers. For example, L’Ecole stores wine at facilities in nearby Walla Walla as well as in the Tri-Cities, about an hour away. It also sends wine out to distribution hubs in Seattle and Salem, Oregon, plus several sites in California.
“Distribution channels all want to pick up out of one of the major distribution hubs for wine,” says Clubb. Regular pickups are scheduled from these hubs as orders come in.
“We pick up typically weekly,” says Guy Harris at Cru Selections, a Seattle-area distributor and importer. “We go with different purchase orders, and the warehouse will have it ready to go, consolidated on one pallet for us.”
“It’s not the most romantic part of the business, but it’s what we do.” —Guy Harris, Cru Selections
From there, the bottles are brought back to the distributor’s warehouse where they are checked into inventory. Harris says for domestic wine, he typically keeps about three weeks’ stock on hand. Each night, workers come in and prepare new orders received from retailers and restaurants. Delivery people arrive the next day, load the wines into trucks and take them to the appropriate destination.
“It’s not the most romantic part of the business, but it’s what we do,” says Harris.
The process differs for imported wine. There, the importer will place an order to a winery. Companies in Europe consolidate these orders onto pallets and ultimately into shipping containers. For wine destined for the U.S.’s West Coast, ships go through the Panama Canal. Once the ship gets to port, a separate company picks it up and delivers it to the importer, whereupon the wine gets checked into inventory before eventually making its way to retailers and restaurants.
Reduce, reuse, reassemble
What happens next is largely dependent upon where the bottle of wine is consumed. In cities that recycle glass, empty bottles can be placed curbside with other recyclables. From there, they go to a processing center for sorting.
“Approximately 90% of glass is sorted mechanically, with everything from metal screens to lasers,” says Hans VanDusen, solid waste contracts manager at Seattle Public Utilities. “But they have significant staff working the lines in those facilities in addition to high tech operations.”
The end result? Heaps of small pieces of mixed color glass.
These small pieces of glass are then taken to a nearby “beneficiation center” that cleans the glass and separates it by color. Glass used for wine bottles then goes to a glass production center in a nearby building.
“Glass is inherently a tighter circular economy than other packaging materials, partly due to the weight,” says DeFife.
Things get more complicated if there isn’t a recycling plant close by.
“Glass is so heavy [that] if you’re far from the opportunity, then it can be really challenging on the cost-benefit side to move it,” says VanDusen. In this case, a wine bottle’s glass might be made into road aggregate or, at worst, put into landfill. The latter is a particularly great loss, as recycling glass is critical to its production.
“Once you have turned the raw materials into glass, it comes back as glass over and over and over again, as many times as you can put it back in,” says DeFife. “There’s no degradation in the quality of the material.”
In the U.S, approximately 30% of glass typically comes from recycled materials, but it varies significantly by state. “The West Coast tends to have much higher recycling rates, and therefore much higher recycled content in those bottles,” says DeFife.
However, local deposit programs also have a substantial impact. For example, in Oregon people pay a $0.10 deposit on glass beverage containers and receive that money back when the container is returned (certain items, such as wine, are exempt). As a result, the state recycles approximately 77% of its glass, and codes even require manufacturing plants use recycled glass. Washington does not have a deposit system but is currently considering one. Today the state recycles approximately 35–40% of its glass.
This circular economy, when managed effectively by municipalities, can be a benefit to both producers and consumers, as transportation and packaging costs heavily factor into the retail price of a wine. So, next time you toss an empty bottle in with your recycling, don’t worry. Chances are you’ll be seeing it again soon.
This article was updated February 7, 2022, with additional information regarding Oregon’s bottle deposit law.