Wine Industry Losing Packaging Weight
Because of strict alcohol regulations in Canada, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is the single largest buyer of wine in the world. Last year, they announced that by 2013, all bottles of wine that retail for less than $15 would have to weigh less than 420 grams when empty, which is 15-20 percent lighter than the standard bottle of wine.
“It's one of those cases where the industry led the regulators,” says Ann Thrupp, Manager of Sustainability and Organic Development at Fetzer Vineyards. “We were one of the early innovators to adopt lighter weight bottling on a very large scale.”
The Hopland, California, company started putting its wine—more than 23 million bottles a year—in lighter bottles in 2008. An independent audit by green consultancy Best Foot Forward determined the change reduced the carbon emissions of the supply chain by 14 percent, or almost three thousand tons.
Thrupp says the move reduced costs as well, mostly in fuel. When the Associated Press picked up the story and word got around, she says, “it had this nice ripple effect in the overall industry,” and other wineries starting following suit. Ontario is the first government to make lighter glass mandatory.
Lighter glass has its limits though, according to Thrupp. While testing has shown it's just as sturdy as the standard bottle, “you have to be careful about not making it too flimsy,” she says “or it changes the impression the wine gives.” She says she believes Tetra Paks—which are often used to package juice—have yet to gain enough acceptance by the American wine-buying public to be an option for Fetzer.
But Matthew Cain, owner of Philadelphia-based Yellow+Blue (equals green, get it?)—which produces 35,000 cases of wine per year and packages exclusively in Tetra Paks—says the public is ready. "The consumer is on board with all kinds of changes in the wine business, but the business itself is not a fast changing thing." He says retailers are skeptical of wine in anything but glass, even though the majority of wine sold in Australia is in alternative containers.
Like Fetzer, ligher materials save Cain's company money and carbon as well. Yellow+Blue's wines come in one liter containers (as opposed to the standard 750ml bottle) and retail for $11-12. "if we shipped the same wine in glass," says Cain, "it would be one third less wine, $17, and double the carbon footrpint."
Cain says he also considered bag-in-box packaging (think Franzia), but liked that Tetra Paks were similar in volume to a traditional bottle. Fetzer uses bag-in-box for some wine they sell in Europe. Thrupp says while there is evidence to suggest it's greener than light glass, she's wonders if consumers will go to the trouble to separate out the bag from the box. She's also interested learning more about the waste stream of glass and its alternatives.
The waste stream is where Carlos Hart started. He has the unique position of being a partner in a recycling plant, and the owner of a wine label, Seattle-based Elkan. He got into the wine business when friends in Chile wanted help getting their wine established in the US, and he says the choice to package it in cans was obvious.
“We don't even take glass up here,” he says of his Busy Beaver Recycling business in Everett, Washington. “There's no market for it.” But aluminum, Hart says, “is the only material on the current market that is infinitely recyclable,” explaining that a can be crushed, recycled and back on the shelf within 60 days, unlike plastic which is often exported, or paper (from which Tetra Paks are made) which degrades rapidly with each cycle.
But a trip to the store is what sealed the deal for Hart. “I went down to Fred Meyer and saw a million bottles of wine there,” he says. “I thought aluminum would really stand out on the aesthetic side,” he explains. Plus, “it's a familiar shape.”
By Hart's calculation, Elkan has sold nearly half a million cans since its inception in 2008. The company is currently transitioning to sourcing their wine and packaging within the United States, but until recently, the cans were filled and shipped from Chile. Hart says that unlike bottles, which aren't space efficient, he can get the maximum amount of wine in each shipping container. “We're going to weigh out before we cube out,” he says.
But the impact of sustainable wine packaging isn't totally about numbers and marketing. Ann Thrupp at Fetzer says, “There are social benefits.” The company has been hearing back from workers along their supply chain since they introduced light weight glass, and “people are happy that it's not as hard to lift a case of wine.” The wine-buying public isn't known for being muscle-bound, so they probably don't mind either.
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