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Wine and the Enviroment

Wine has been made since Roman times but the environmental consequences are only starting to be fully understood. It is not just about the effects of global warming and carbon footprints. The recycling of wine bottles and the green credentials of glass are not quite as clear cut as they seem.

This page pulls together the different environmental issues that influence wine, starting with glass recycling in the UK.

How green is green glass?

Wine bottles are not environmentally friendly in the UK! Every week I put out my wine bottles for the recycling. But there is a problem recycling green glass in the UK.

The UK consumes approximately 1 million tonnes of green glass each year. About 40% is produced locally and 60% imported. Even if all the locally produced glass was made from 100% recycled glass then we would only recycle 40% maximum. The actual amount is lower. We are meant to recycle 60% of our glass by 2008 or face EU fines. Sure this is an average over all types of glass and perhaps clear glass can help the green. But I think we wine drinkers should do our bit. So what can we do as a nation to meet a reasonable target. The government set up WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Program) to help the UK meet its recycling targets. WRAP has suggested to decrease our waste of green glass we need to follow the 3 basic green principals of reduce, re-use and lastly recycle. The three options for wine is reduce the amount of glass in a wine bottle, change to clear glass so more clear wine bottles are available for recycling, and finally bottle here in the UK using recycled clear glass instead of shipping it over here.

Lets start with the weight of the bottle. The average weight of glass in a bottle is 500g but the range in weight is between 900g and 300g. If the average weight of a bottle was reduced to say 400g that would reduce our waste from green glass by 20% and get us almost to our target. But there is a cost associated with weight: lighter bottles break more easily and if you have an expensive wine you will want the glass to be touch enough to protect the wine. Heavy wine bottles feel better quality. Because of that feel some people believe that the weight of the bottle gives a good indication of the quality of the wine. In my experience this is often true, especially when comparing a £10 wine with a £4 bottle. I think this is because the incremental increase in cost of the glass is small compared to the wine's profit and the risk of breaking. But for wines below £5 this is a less significant factor. According to WRAP there is no relationship between wine below £5 and the weight of the bottle. WRAP advocate a shift to 300g bottles, but my experience with that weight is not good, so I would advocate a shift to 400g bottles as an interim step.

The next option is to shift from green glass to the more easily recycled clear glass. Before we had the issue of recycling, green glass was the default choice partly from a historic perspective and also because the green glass is thought to cut out UV light that would affect the wine.  For a business such as mine I have no problems with clear glass, our wines are kept inside boxes and out of the light for all but the final moments of sitting in the sun drinking them. But for supermarkets that always put their best wines under the lights at the top of the rack this is more of a problem. I do think wines made from clear glass are fine as long as they are handled with care and the wines are not for long term cellaring. So wines such as rose and some white wines would be suitable. But this requires more work and WRAP are to announce their research early next year.

The final option is to increase our consumption of green glass. This is probably easiest achieved by bringing wine into the UK in bulk and bottling in the UK using recycled green glass. Bulk shipments are a bit like huge bag in box containers filled to the brim with wine. Not only does it mean more wine in the container increasing the efficiency of shipping, the wine then needs to be filled in the UK using green bottles, that have been recycled using our own green glass.

The final option to reduce our green glass mountain is to change from glass altogether to cardboard tetra packs or even plastic bottles. But the environmental credentials of these products are for the subject of another discussion...

Is plastic bottles better than glass for the environment

Much has been said about the environmental and recyclable advantages of glass bottles. But does recyclability make for a lower carbon foot print. How much carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced during the manufacturing of a glass bottle versus a plastic bottle. After all plastic bottles weigh less than their glass counterparts and therefore generate less CO2 as they are transported, but how much less? And what about disposal?

So when we look at this we will look at the three main components of carbon in the manufacture, transportation and disposal of the wine bottle.

Amcor a bottle manufacturer, reports that it generates about 0.6g of CO2 per gram of glass wine bottles produced. A simple, empty wine bottle weighs about 550g, so about 330g of CO2 is generated for each glass wine bottle manufactured.

In the U.K we use about 40% of locally produced wine bottle glass that is around 90% recycled, so around 36% is reused. Using recycled galss reduces the carbon footprint of the reusing bottle by around 25%

So the production and disposal creates around 75% of36%of 330g or 300g

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) reports that the manufacture of plastic drink bottles generates 1g of CO2 per gram of plastic bottles. This is quite a bit higher than for glass. But  PET  (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles weigh significantly less than glass at around 53g, or 53g of CO2

Unfortunately, recycled plastic is about 40% more expensive than brand new material, so there are not many people buying recycled plastic to remake drink bottles. Plastic bottles can be incinerated to produce electricity. But the UK lags behind much of Europe with only 26 plants operating in the UK (2011) and plastic bottles are more likely to go to landfill. If the bottle was burned, then this would produce more CO2 but is likely to replace other carbon intensive forms of energy production with less net effect. As a result I will assume that most waste goes to landfill or is carbon neutral from burning.

The manufacturing and disposal cost of the carbon footprint is about 5.6 times more CO2 is generated by a glass wine bottle than a plastic one.

The CO2 generated during transportation of the two types of wine bottles is directly related to the difference in weight between the glass and plastic wine bottles.

Assuming the wine in each bottle weighs the same and is around 750g, a filled glass wine bottle weighs approximately 1.3Kg, and a filled plastic bottle weighs about 0.8 kg

The CO2 generated depends very much on the method of transportation and distance. Shipping being less weight specific while flights being very weight dependent. Trucks are in the middle. Either way,  the amount of CO2 produced will be related to weight with glass being 1.625 times less efficient.

PET bottles in general are significantly more environmentally friendly than recycled glass from a CO2 point of view. Both in terms of  manufacturing and transport. However the low recyclability of plastic means that it is not a closed loop process, the holy grail of environmentalist.

A word of caution. This book did not look at spoilage associated with a shorter shelf life of PET bottles (6-18 months)  and the greater risk of spoilage of wine. This compares to the higher breakage costs associated with glass. The poor performance of the packaging will result in wasted wine which has a massive effect on CO2 costs and this needs to be understood in more detail before a full understanding of the Carbon influences of the packaging can be fully understood.

Bulk Wine Importing

Bulk wine importing is a very unglamorous name for what is essentially a key ingredient in producing quality wines at a cheap price. Bulk wine is wine that is shipped not in its bottle, shipping is usually in some form of tank and bottled in the destination country. It can be for cheap un-branded wine or for big brands that need to move large amounts of wine. There are three issues associated with importing wine.

  • Quality Control
  • Environmental issues
  • Costs

Costs are the reason much wine is bulk imported. When shipping wine from Australia to the UK or America, there are three options.

  • The wine could be bottled at source and flown.
  • Bottled at source and packed into a container and shipped.
  • Poured into flexible tank (Flexitank) inside a container and bottled at destination.

Flying wine around the world is both environmental and economically unacceptable. The only wines flown these days are usually samples for big wine buyers.

Bottling at source and packing into a container is very common. The volume of a typical case of 12 bottles of wine is 34x25x30cm or 0.0255M cubed. This is equivalent to a decent 25.5L of volume. But remeber a case of 12 bottles only holds 9L of wine. So there is huge waste in volume when shipping by sea if the wine is pre bottled. In real life a standard container can hold between 12,000 and 13,000 bottles depending on bottle size and packing method. However using a standard flexi tank the equivalent of 32,000 bottles of wine can be shipped. This is a huge improvement in cost as most sea freight is calculated on the volume shipped not the weight.

It is not just volume that is being saved. The liquid in a bottle of wine is approximately 750g. With a bottle weighing between 300 and 500g, the weight of the bottle accounts for between 29% and 40% of the final wine weight.  So even shipping by road where the weight as well as volume can be an important factor bulk importing has significant advantages.

More shipped for the same costs can give a significant improvement in costs, but from an environmentally point of view it can have significant advantages. The less shipping means that less CO2 is required. According to the waste and resource action program (wrap) shipping a wine from Australia in bulk and bottling in the UK versus shipping a bottled wine saves 137g of carbon (using a 400g bottle). This may not sound like much but when you consider Consitllation Europe, the owners of Stowells, Eco Falls and Kumala imported 55 million bottles, and was getting ready to double this during 2009. Other large UK bottlers include Corby Bottlers bottling 5.4 million 75cl bottles and Kingsland Wines and Spirit who bottle 8.3 million bottles for the Co op and a wopping 54 million bottles for Tesco. In total 199 million bottles of wine are bottled from bulk imports. These are big numbers and make a meaningful difference. For Australia 20% of wine is bulk imported saving 11,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. But according to wrap by using light weight bottles this could be increased to 122,500 tonnes. 

Saving of CO2 is not the only benefit. In the UK where we have natural use for green glass, importing by bulk reduces the amount of waste glass imported into the country and provides a use for the glass that is here. Reducing waste and improving the recyclability of green glass in the UK.

In many wine circles the idea of bulk wine importing is frowned upon. Wines bulk imported are perceived as cheap, and this is true. Cheap wines below £6, is the back bone of the UK wine economy and have the economies of scale to warrant increased logistics required to achieve the savings. If an artisan is making 20,000 bottles of a wine, this would not even fill a flexitank and would not warrant the extra logistics of bulk importing. In addition many winemakers worry about importing wines by bulk as they are not there to supervise the bottling loseing a level of control. For expensive wine this is not acceptable for these producers. However there are some advantages to bulk importing from a quality perspective

Wines shipped in Bulk have more wine in the tank and as such experience slower thermal changes and less risk of damage from excessive heating as many exoperince crossing the equator. Wines that are made for immediate drinking have a short shelf life, as such bottling closer to the point of drinking means that the wine is likely to be fresher and in better condition, especially if closed with a plastic cork, where shelf life is only 6 to 18 months.

Bulk importing also gives shippers the opportunity to adapt the packaging of the wines to respond to the market more quickly. Perhaps a modified label showing a promotion, or an extra sticker for a recent award, all can be added months later if the wine was bottled at source then shipped.

In conclusion bulk importing of wine is an excellent way of shipping large quantities of wine that make up the low to medium priced wines, it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly. It also gives greater flexibility for packaging.