For many of us wine drinkers, our first conscious act towards saving the planet was to separate empty bottles from the rest of our rubbish. It made us feel pretty good, even though most of us were — and continue to be — shockingly ignorant about what then happens to them.
Today, few really understand the relative merits of different forms of packaging for wine in terms of sustainability. And this is hardly surprising, since even those whose job it is to study such things admit that the whole subject is hugely complex and definitive statistics are extremely difficult to come by.
To the average consumer, a glass bottle may seem virtuous because they generally assume that it’s both recycled and recyclable. Hence when the European glass manufacturers association, FEVE, commissioned a consumer research project last year involving 10,000 15-minute interviews in 13 European countries, it was able to boast that 91 per cent of interviewees agreed glass is the best packaging material for wine. (Brits are the most sceptical about glass, apparently — only 82 per cent of us agreed.)
On the strength of this research, Europe’s glass manufacturers have come up with a new hallmark on bottles that, as far as I can make out, merely confirms that the bottle you have in your hand is indeed made of glass, even if the design of the logo vaguely suggests recyclability.
The official online presentation of this innovation last November skipped lightly over the massive carbon footprint of producing and transporting glass bottles, the biggest factors in any winemaker’s carbon audit. A greener sort of furnace, which relies more on electric power than fossil fuels, is being piloted in Germany over the next few years, yet it will require considerable effort and investment for bottle manufacturers to reach FEVE’s ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050.
One of the keys to this is, of course, recycling rates. The figure FEVE likes to quote is that Europe’s “average glass collection for recycling rate” is 76 per cent (which it would like to see reach 90 per cent by 2030), though it acknowledges that not all of this will ultimately be recycled.
In the UK, each local authority is in charge of contracting waste management, which means that standards and practices can vary enormously from place to place. Overall, only about 50 per cent of all glass containers in the UK are recycled, compared with well over 90 per cent in Switzerland and Scandinavia. (Swiss citizens are incentivised by a combination of free glass collection points and a tax on bags for general rubbish.) The British Standards Institution, which sets national standards for everything from financial services to medical devices, would like to see recycling protocols harmonised.
Recycling bottles is complicated. They come in all sorts of colours which have to be separated from each other, while labels and foils have to be removed. The farsighted Torres winemaking family in Catalonia is pressing for a standard wine bottle that could be recycled and reused anywhere in the world — or at least anywhere in Europe to begin with.
Yet this would require EU legislation, admits Miguel Torres, which seems a very distant possibility to me, when so many wine producers choose to use bottle design and weight — especially weight — to try to carve out a distinctive identity for their wines. (It was notable in a recent online forum on the future of wine that the greatest opprobrium was directed towards those who use heavy bottles unnecessarily.)
Increased awareness of sustainability issues has also resulted in a flurry of new designs for wine packaging. These include a replica of a standard bottle from Frugalpac, which is made from 94 per cent recycled paperboard (and “a food-grade liner”) that can in turn be recycled.
One of the most energetic and thoughtful innovators on this side of the Atlantic has been Santiago Navarro, chief executive of Garçon Wines. He has designed an almost flat wine bottle that can fit through a letter box and is much lighter, considerably more space-saving and less fragile than the traditional glass bottle. If the option of an active oxygen scavenger is applied, the wine will stay fresh for more than 12 months before opening, he claims.
A keen diver, he is well aware of the problems of plastic waste, as highlighted so vividly by David Attenborough in his Blue Planet series. Even though the food-friendly PET plastic from which Navarro’s smooth, olive-green bottle is moulded has already been used once — and in general plastic has a much lower carbon footprint than single-use glass — some consumers are convinced that all plastic is evil.
In fact, there are many different forms of plastic, of which PET is arguably the most sustainable, and Navarro treasures the letter he received from Sir David congratulating him on his novel design.
The problem with plastic is not so much the material itself but how to manage it after use. According to the British Plastics Federation, about 50 per cent of all plastic in the UK is recycled. Yet unlike glass, which can be recycled many times, plastic can be recycled effectively much less often because it degrades — though work is ongoing to improve this.
Wine in cans is becoming popular in the US, where a high proportion of all drinks is sold in cans already. They tend to be much smaller than a regular bottle and, let’s face it, there are some pretty huge disadvantages to the 75cl bottle. It’s way too much for one person, often too much for two at a single sitting, and the unit price is far higher than a can’s, which some younger potential wine drinkers in particular find off-putting. Cans are convenient: they can easily be popped into a picnic bag or even, should we return to office life, a briefcase.
Made from steel or aluminium, they can also be recycled almost infinitely. Still, like glass, the manufacturing process is heavy on energy and resources.
Glass, so usefully inert, will surely remain the material of choice for fine wine that deserves long ageing, but for the sake of the planet we do need to look more favourably on the alternatives for that which is drunk within days or weeks of purchase — which constitutes by far the majority of all wine sold.
Borough Wines in London deserves mention for its work founding Sustainable Wine Solutions, which offers a bottle return scheme, a refillable box (a “zero-waste alternative to bag-in-box”) and what it claims are “the UK’s only 100 per cent reusable kegs”. The latter are a fine solution for restaurants and bars — should they ever be in business again.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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