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LWF: Time to bottle it on glass?

Published:  19 May, 2021

As carbon emissions and the broader topic of sustainability climb back up the agenda, one of the more forward-looking sessions at London Wine Fair (LWF) 2021 cut to the heart of the issue.

Asking ‘Can wine be part of the circular economy?’, host Jamie Goode opened by challenging one of the biggest and least discussed issues surrounding the sustainability of the trade.

“One of the problems that the wine industry faces is its addiction to glass bottles. People love to have their wine in a glass bottle and this creates a huge carbon footprint,” he said.

Goode added that while glass is recyclable, most of the bottles in the UK are imported green glass and that there is far too much green glass for recycling, so most of that ends up in landfill. And that recycling glass itself requires “enormous” amounts of energy, so the carbon footprint is “a major sticking point”.

This was clearly illustrated in a later, complimentary session entitled ‘How to reduce wine’s carbon footprint’. Featuring members of International Wineries for Climate Action, research presented revealed that wine bottles, their labels and closures, plus transportation of these (heavy) goods, together account for around a third of total winery emissions, with this split fairly evenly between the packaging and movement of wine.

Back to the Circular Economy debate, and as panellist Muriel Chatel of Borough Wines reminded, some 1.3 billion bottles of wine are sold every year in the UK alone, producing a sizeable carbon footprint.

Bruce Schneider, co-founder of the sustainability-focused Gotham Project in the US, then did the maths for those listening, driving the point home.

“People need to understand that each empty bottle created is producing about half a kilo of CO2 per bottle and that empty bottle represents 50% of the total carbon footprint of each bottle of wine,” he said.

With the UK trade and its customers behind some 625,000,000kg of arguably largely avoidable CO2 emissions annually just because of their love of the glass bottle, the panel agreed that change was needed and that this should first be directed at the mass market level.

“We have to do better,” was Schneider’s succinct summary.

Chatel, who’s company has long focused on alternative packaging and dispense of wine as part of an over-arching sustainable philosophy, highlighted the possibilities now available through shipments of “small bulk”, including high quality wines.

This, she said, allowed not just in-market bottling, but alternative packaging and dispense, further contributing to the carbon savings made by cutting the weight of glass out of shipping.

Wine on tap in both on and off-trade, plus reusable bottles or containers – as championed by Borough Wines and a growing number of other outlets – were cited as workable solutions.

Concerns raised that such solutions may only be suitable – and accepted for – mass market wines were also challenged, not least by the presence of Damien Barton Sartorius of Chateau Leoville-Barton on the panel, who is involved in a joint project with Borough Wines to bring quality Bordeaux wine (close to the £20 a 'bottle' mark) to the consumer via re-usable bottles.

Asked by Goode what is holding the market back in more widely adopting different packaging and serves, Schneider responded that “tradition and habits” were the main obstacles, along with more practical considerations.

In addition, if restaurants or bars aren’t designed to have wine on tap from day one, few will countenance the spend or disruption to retro-fit such systems.

Flying in the face of general trade sentiment, the Deposit Return Scheme on drinks containers was seen favourably, also with a call from the panel for big (producing) markets, such as the EU and US, to take the lead and legislate for a standardised and light bottle for all wine produced and consumed in those markets.

One major obstacle to progress on bulk shipping and in-market packaging highlighted is that many appellation rules, as in Rioja, insist that all wine has to be bottled in the region of origin to carry its name.

Given, as Goode pointed out, that some regions still refuse to allow the use of screwcap, this might take quite some time to change.

Producers also came into the sights of the panel with the suggestion that they should be made to bear some of the end-of-life costs of the bottle, in terms of carbon emissions from recycling or waste into landfill, to help focus minds and drive change.

And, finally, action from government(s) was deemed essential to push through change, also creating a level playing field for all so that the costs of reducing carbon footprint was not born just by the dedicated frontrunners in what will increasingly become essential for all.

In summing up, Goode hit a positive note, suggesting that change was inevitable, but countering the panel’s more downbeat assessment that it would be slow.

“Change can happen in a very short space of time,” he said, highlighting how plastic had gone from common everyday usage to public enemy in a very short time.

Indeed, if the trade is sluggish, in these ever increasingly eco-aware times it may well find itself behind the curve as and when the mood finally turns against heavy glass bottles.

who is involved in a joint project with Borough Wines to bring quality Bordeaux wine (close to the £20 a 'bottle' mark) to the consumer without the use of glass in the supply chain.

The scheme is re-usable bottles so it is not technically without the use of glass, although the wines are available in keg format too.  They are in reusable glass bottles which are returned to Borough Wines who then sterilise and re-use them.