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Friday Read: Encirc on uncorking the path to Net Zero

Published:  15 March, 2024

Fiacre O’Donnell, sustainability director at glass container manufacturer Encirc, looks at the future of sustainability for wine and spirits supply, including low-carbon/alternative energy fuels and the possibilities of a digital deposit return scheme (DDRS).

The pursuit of Net Zero has become imperative for nations worldwide – and the UK stands at the forefront of this ambitious journey. In packaging, and specifically beverage manufacturing, there is plenty of opportunity and (as important) willingness to take the necessary steps to create a sustainable future.

Yet, with concern around the future of sustainability goals still looming, and the question of whether we as an industry can act in time to make meaningful change, the question becomes: how will we get there?

Achieving Net Zero requires a concerted effort from both private enterprises and government bodies. The manufacturing sector, a significant contributor to carbon emissions, necessitates strategic interventions to align with environmental goals.

The UK government is supporting this effort by putting the regulatory framework in place that these businesses need to demonstrate the positive impact of low-carbon hydrogen to power manufacturing. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero recently unveiled plans to create a globally recognised standard for low-carbon hydrogen, with a further £960m made available for sustainable manufacturing from the 2023 Autumn Statement.

However, implementing new infrastructure to meet these regulations and standards is a far greater task, and the transition to sustainable packaging manufacturing requires substantial investments in technology, research and infrastructure. Government support is therefore crucial in facilitating this transition and enabling change that the industry is already looking to make happen.

To encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly practices, the government is currently, to some degree, providing financial incentives and grants to manufacturers in the packaging industry. Such support will not only accelerate the transition to energy-efficient manufacturing processes, but also ensures that the economic burden is shared, promoting widespread industry participation. 

For many beverage packaging manufacturers, powering furnaces is the primary source of carbon creation. Transiting to more sustainable fuels in order to power furnaces is therefore a clear step forward in minimising carbon output – and this is work that can already be clearly observed in the glass sector.

Magnifying the potential of glass

Glass is one of the few packaging materials that can be infinitely recycled, creating that truly closed loop that’s the ultimate goal in the circular economy. That doesn’t mean it’s exempt from the challenges facing other substances though. High energy requirements are the norm in the manufacturing and recycling processes, but there are projects well underway to address these issues.

For example, we at Encirc, the Northern Ireland and Cheshire-based container glass manufacturer, are embracing low-carbon gases as an alternative to natural gas in heavy industry. We are also developing plans to invest in hybrid furnaces, with a mix of low carbon electricity and gases, hydrogen supplied by the HyNet project, biomethane and biofuels all future options. This will allow the company to start cutting emissions sooner rather than later and pass those savings down to consumers up and down the country.

Central to this is the recycling of glass, and how consumers return glass is a vital question for the sector and the government.

Message in a bottle

The question of whether to include, or not include glass in a deposit return scheme is one that has been pondered for some time. However, the realities of the scheme call into question the uptake from consumers who would be required to carry large amounts of bulky packaging product in order to recycle.

Instead, I think we need to continue exploring the possibility of a digital deposit return scheme, which involves the use of digital technology to track and incentivise the return of glass containers for recycling. This would not only promote responsible consumer behaviour but also streamline the recycling process, making it more efficient and economically viable.

The scheme would work by having consumers return used glass containers by scanning a QR code on the container and placing it in a recycling bin that is collected from their home – far more convenient and efficient. This, in turn, reduces the demand for raw materials and energy-intensive production processes, meaning a smaller carbon footprint for the industry. We’re already seeing trials happen across the UK with positive initial results, and the next steps would be implementing these schemes in a proper structure at a larger scale.

Key to these schemes are digital systems that would enable each container to be traced, providing transparency in the recycling process, which not only gives consumers confidence in the consequences of recycling but also allows manufacturers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. Segregation of recycled material is a critical piece of this puzzle, allowing for each of the material types to be collected separately, increasing the output and local use of these valuable materials.

The digital nature of the scheme would therefore generate valuable data on consumer behaviour, recycling patterns and material flow. This data can then be utilised by both government agencies and manufacturers to make informed decisions and further optimise the recycling infrastructure.

A glass half full

Clearly, there is work to be done for beverage packaging manufacturers across the board, with glass, cans and plastic all facing a serious challenge to decarbonise efficiently in order to meet sustainability goals. However, the appetite of the sector for sustainability has already been whetted, and with the correct investment and application of funds, the industry has the ability to transform its reputation and deliver on its environmental objectives.