Eco-Packaging for Wine: Bottles and Beyond

December 10, 2008

 Eco-friendly wine isn't just about what's in the bottle. It also IS the bottle — or, increasingly the box — plus the cork (or, increasingly screwtop), and more. Even wine snobs are learning that you can't always judge the wine by its packaging.

On Sept. 17, 2008, Tipsheet covered current trends in eco-friendly wine. This is part 2 of greener ways to drink.

TO CORK, OR NOT TO CORK?

It used to be that a screwtop was a sure sign of a cheap, inferior wine. But today, more wineries in the US and around the world are topping their bottles with screwtop closures, rather than natural or synthetic corks. And it's not just for the lowest-priced blends. Screwtop wines can now be found in the mid-priced range of most US liquor stores ($12-18/bottle) — still aimed at the consumer market, rather than at wine connoisseurs. But the consumer market purchases far more wine.

Many wine experts contend that the importance of the cork is mainly a matter of perception — and that perception may even be misguided, in terms of wine quality. Many wine lovers consider the experience of popping a cork, even the sound of it, to be a crucial part of wine enjoyment. However, natural corks are the cause of one of the biggest problems in the wine business: "cork taint," or contamination/spoilage of wine due to impurities like mold that can occur in natural cork. By some estimates, up to 5-8% of wines suffer cork-related spoilage that render them undrinkable — an especially significant financial risk to wine collectors and dealers.

In contrast, aluminum screwtops require less materials, are recyclable, and create no contamination risk. However, embodied energy remains an open question for the screwtop-vs.-cork debate.

From an environmental standpoint (fossil fuel use, embodied energy, inability to recycle/compost), synthetic corks are the clear loser. Yet a2007 industry survey indicated that synthetic corks are the fastest-growing segment of this market.

The US wine market may be more resistant to screwtop wines than elsewhere around the globe. On Sept. 24, 2008, Minneapolis Star-Tribunewine critic Bill Ward quoted a representative of the popular and large Australian winery Rosemount as saying: "It's only in America that we use cork [to top our wines], and it's only on our inexpensive reds. We've found that when Americans see an $8 or $10 red with a screw cap, they think it's not a good wine. If it's a more expensive red, they figure it's fine."

Fetzer, one of the leading US wineries, also has begun experimenting with screwtop closures in the US market. Press: James Caudill, 707-237-3461.

Natural corks comes from cork oak trees, mainly from the Mediterranean region. Cork forests are rich ecosystems, and the natural cork industry plays a significant role in protecting and sustaining these ecosystems. The World Wildlife Fund is promoting the continued use of natural cork for ecosystem protection and support of sustainable "fair trade" agriculture.

Portuguese cork producer Amorim recently launched a similar campaign, "Save Miguel," promoting natural wine corks to save cork oak forests. According to Amorim, "70% of the value associated with the world's cork forests depends on wine stoppers, not shoes or bulletin boards or flooring tiles." US press: Roger Archey, 415-927-4207. Release.

The Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program works with the Forest Stewardship Council to certify sustainable cork growers, who harvest their cork from young trees that continue to grow and produce.

SAVING ON GLASS

While closures get a lot of attention, the glass used in traditional wine packaging actually represents a far greater environmental impact. Although glass is recyclable, it's also energy-intensive to produce. Consequently, many wine producers are designing bottles that require less glass.

One of the most conspicuous glass savings comes from the bottom of the bottle. Traditional wine bottles have an indented base, called a "punt," which purportedly aids pouring. However, punts also significantly increase the glass requirements for wine bottles.

According to WineBusiness.com, Fetzer "will lightweight its entire line of wines to reduce its environmental footprint. ...On an average annual basis, the new bottles reduce glass usage by 16% (more than 2,100 tons) and supply chain greenhouse gas emissions (or carbonfootprint) associated with glass bottles by 14% (3,000 tons of CO2). ...The 16% glass savings is a result of technological innovations in bottle design, reducing the glass thickness and eliminating the punt. ...Additionally, Fetzer uses recycled materials in all packaging — wine bottles are made from 35% recycled glass on average and box partitions use 100% recycled material." Fetzer release of Oct. 15,2008.

BOXED WINE

Some wineries are eschewing bottles entirely, at least for some of their offerings. Boxed wine is becoming increasingly popular. It tends to be less costly, and quality has been improving. An Aug. 17, 2008, New York Times op-ed touted the environmental benefits of boxed wine— mainly, lightweight packaging is cheaper to produce and cuts transportation fuel costs. But also, "Once open, a box preserves wine for about four weeks compared with only a day or two for a bottle," which allows for economies of scale (bulk buying) on the consumer's end.

But can you recycle wine boxes? In most cases, not entirely. While the exterior cardboard box is generally recyclable, the interior lining is not, and thus must be removed prior to recycling. This extra bit of effort is often just enough to tempt consumers to just throw out the wine box. Check with your local recyclers about whether they accept wine boxes (or juice boxes, which are similarly packaged) and what recycling issues they present.

The TetraPak is becoming increasingly popular for wine boxes. DrVino.com article on one organic winery's decision to use TetraPak packaging for its Yellow + Blue brand.

BOTTLING AT DESTINATION PORT

Wine is a global business, and traditionally wine is bottled at the winery. This increases shipping weight (and thus transportation fuelrequirements) and also means more packing material is needed to protect the glass en route. UK's Sky News recently reported on a bottling plant in Cheshire, England, that "receives wine not in bottles placed in cases but in huge plastic pouches carried in cargo containers, which are then used to fill bottles in the UK."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Wine Business Monthly (subscribers only) offers considerable statistics and industry information. Editor: Cyril Penn, 707-939-0822.