From delicately twisting a corkscrew to get that all-satisfying “pop,” to pouring the perfect amount of wine from bottle to glass, the ceremony of opening a wine bottle has timeless appeal. But tradition isn’t the only consideration when taking a hard look at how your wine is packaged. Sustainability and environmental impact are becoming ever more at the top of consumers’ minds.
So, what makes some wine packaging sustainable, and others not so much?
When it comes to evaluating the sustainability of wine, a 2020 California Wine Institute study found that traditional glass bottles account for 29% of the wine’s carbon footprint, and transportation of the bottles accounts for 13%. That means that nearly half the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine is directly impacted by its packaging and ship-ability.
Plastic may seem controversial when talking about environmental impact.
Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and head of environmental affairs at Wine Institute, says there is a higher demand for sustainable wines and sustainable wine packaging, and there are a few key factors to focus on when considering what that means.
“It’s not just about recyclability but also recycled content,” she says. “If you look at lifecycle, it’s also the amount of electricity used to produce the packaging, and then transportation is also a really important factor and weight is a big part of that.”
In short, the weight of the vessel—which impacts the fossil fuel levels necessary for shipment— its life span, recyclability and the carbon footprint of creating or recycling the packaging material matter most when determining what sustainability means for a container.
Lightweight and Recycled Bottles
Of course, glass still rules the pack when it comes to wine containers. Glass stands as the best bottling option when it comes to aging wine and is the most traditional. But not all glass bottles are created equal, environmentally speaking.
The eco price paid when bottling with glass comes firstly from the bottles’ weight: a 750-ml bottle is about 2.65 pounds. Some winemakers try to address this issue by using lightweight bottles, but even these can weigh 2 pounds when full.
Using recycled glass content is also a common practice in reducing a bottle’s eco-impact. Jordan notes the state of California requires almost all glass bottles include 35% recycled glass, but finding the supply of usable glass to remake into bottles is not always an easy task.
While glass can be infinitely recycled without losing quality, the whole picture is more complex. Sorting glass by color and dealing with broken bits means the recycling process is slow and expensive—resulting in lower demands and some regions no longer accepting glass recyclables.
Additionally, the likelihood that a wine bottle will be recycled back into a bottle isn’t high. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, not all glass bottles meet quality standards to be recycled. This means the wine bottle you toss in your bin may very well end up fulfilling what the Institute calls “secondary uses,” which can mean they’re destined for concrete pavement or tile.
Alternative Paper and Plastic Bottles
In a search for alternative bottling options, innovators all over the world have imagined new vessels to wrap around wine.
Santiago Navarro, founder and CEO of U.K.-based Packamama, believes it’s time to modernize.
“Wine packaging, the glass bottle, is 19th-century product technology, and trying to use 19th-century technology in a 21st-century world is unlikely to work and be successful,” he says.
His answer: a space-saving flat wine bottle with a screw-top cap, produced from 100% recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a strong, lightweight plastic commonly used in packaging beverages. The flat bottles create space for 91% more wine during shipment compared to a round glass bottle—meaning over 1,000 flat bottles can be packed on a pallet, as opposed to 672 750-ml glass bottles. And because the PET bottles weigh 2.2 ounces, those pallets weigh significantly less than those packed with glass bottles.
Plastic may seem controversial when talking about environmental impact—a fact not lost on Navarro but the material is hard to avoid when packaging liquid. Navarro notes that, like glass, PET can be recycled infinitely but has a much lower overall carbon impact.
“I think every little bit counts in terms of carbon footprint.”—Walker Brown, cofounder of South Africa’s Lubanzi Wine
Navarro adds that recycled PET may not be the most suitable material in 10 years, but waiting for an environmentally perfect packaging solution to come along without addressing carbon and climate concerns now is not an option.
“Our estimation is around 15% of the world of wine benefits from glass because of cellaring, but the 85% mass production that’s consumed within weeks of purchase needs a better solution now,” he says.
At Frugalpac, a U.K. company that focuses on paper wine packaging, CEO Malcolm Waugh agrees that waiting for an environmentally flawless packaging option isn’t the answer. “We agonized over if we should hold back until the ‘silver bullet’ material was available, which it isn’t yet in any packaging format for liquids,” he says.
And so, in 2020, the company rolled out the Frugal Bottle. It is comprised of a recycled paperboard outer shell, an inner polypropylene (or polymer plastic) pouch, and a plastic neck with a screw-top lid. The bottle uses 94% recycled paperboard and is five times lighter than the standard glass bottle. The resulting container’s carbon footprint is six times lower than glass, according to the company.
The bottle uses 94% paper that has already been recycled up to seven times, the limit for paper’s recycling lifespan. The resulting container uses six times less carbon to create and dispose of than glass, according to the company.
Stateside, the paper bottles can be found at Michigan-based Signal 7 Wines, which is currently bottling four wines in the Frugal Bottle. Wine from Cantina Goccia, an Italian winery, is also available in the paper bottle.
Cans, Kegs and More
Reimagining traditional bottle-shaped containers is just one piece of the wine-packaging puzzle.
Instead of crafting bottles out of new material or recycled glass, Gotham Project, which also specializes in canning and kegging wine, launched a glass bottle refilling program. Its four specially labeled “Reduce and Reuse” wines can be returned to a number of participating wine shops in New York, Massachusetts and Colorado to be refilled.
Other companies maintain that refillable kegs could be a more sustainable alternative. Free Flow Wines, with locations in New Jersey and California, pumps wine into reusable steel kegs and ships them across the country.
Heather Clauss, chief commercial officer of Free Flow Wines, says the kegs are warrantied for 30 years. “But if nothing happens to the steel it very well could be in use for 100 years,” she says. “That’s the beauty of steel; it’s really pretty indestructible.”
An empty keg comes in at 12 pounds and can hold 26 bottles worth of wine, she says. With the average empty glass bottle weighing in at around 1.5 pounds, one keg can save nearly 30 pounds of precious shipping weight.
“The wake-up call is we need to do more, we need to do better and we need to safeguard the health of our planet.”—Santiago Navarro, founder and CEO of Packamama
The company, which kegs and cans wines for over 200 wineries, focuses on strategically locating its facilities and operating efficient pickups to keep its carbon footprint as low as possible.
“We’ve really worked hard to make everything as efficient and not as impactful carbon-wise as possible,” Clauss says.
The Ball Corporation, one of the world’s leading aluminum providers, says that 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. When compared to glass, aluminum takes much less energy to repurpose, thanks to the laborious process of melting glass down for reuse.
Clauss notes that a can you throw into the recycling bin today could be a new can within 60 days, “so it’s more energy-efficient than, say, recycling glass or some other materials,” she says. Which is part of the reason more and more wineries are offering up their wines canned.
Walker Brown, cofounder of South Africa’s Lubanzi Wine brand, says the company has wanted to offer canned as well as bottled wines since its 2016 inception. “I really believe in it from a sustainability standpoint; aluminum is the most recycled container in the world,” he says. “I think every little bit counts in terms of carbon footprint, and the lighter the good, the less carbon footprint it has. And so, I think that was a big part of it for us as well.”
Of course, change isn’t easy. Some consumers are loath to lose the drama of popping a cork out of a glass bottle, and producers worry about how different sized vessels of varying materials will affect how wine tastes, smells and evolves.
The bottom line is there is no one environmentally and aesthetically perfect packaging for wine, or really any liquid. But that hasn’t stopped the sustainably minded from rethinking the way we package it.
“The wake-up call is we need to do more, we need to do better and we need to safeguard the health of our planet,” says Navarro. And wine is a good place to start.
“Wine is an item that brings people much joy, which is why I think an important point is that wine has a duty of care to engage people in an environmental conversation, to help communicate a low-carbon footprint future.”