Sustainable packaging – a conversation on alternative solutions to glass wine bottles

This May, North South Wines’ Kim Wilson got involved in an exclusive webinar in collaboration with Harpers Wine & Spirits

Chaired by Harpers Wine & Spirit editor Andrew Catchpole, the focus of the session was on Sustainability of Glass: Consumer perceptions and buying habits.  

As well as Kim, the panel of experts called upon to share their opinions included Sarah Benson, buyer at Co-Op, Jessica Anderson, head of strategic change and governance at Virgin Wines, and Rowena Curlewis, CEO & co-founder of Denomination.

Panellists were asked to share their thoughts and opinions as Andrew laid out the facts and statistics into sustainable packaging for wine makers. 

The webinar revealed the sobering fact that wine bottles, labels and closures, in addition to their transportation account for a third of total winery emissions, and out of the 1.3 billion bottles of wine sold in the UK alone, the total co2 emissions add up to a staggering 625 million kilos, according to Sustainable Wine Solutions’ calculations.

The purpose of the webinar was to get some knowledgeable wine-heads together and discuss the pros and cons of glass, consumers’ relationship with glass and figure out what lies ahead in terms of packaging – harvesting opinions from the retailer, the buyer and the supplier.

Kim was able to pitch in and offer her unique perspective from a supplier’s point of view. 

Kim was able to pitch in and offer her unique perspective from a supplier’s point of view, citing glass as currently the safest way to transport and extend the lifespan of wine, and whilst acknowledging that Tetra, PET and Bag in Box delivered in part but not the same extent, they also had a negative impact on the environment”. She noted, too, that nothing has yet been developed that offers the same levels of protection and safety.

From a retailer’s point of view, Sarah put forward her opinion that glass bottles are the most understood packaging format from a customer perspective: it’s uniform, it’s inert and it doesn’t present the challenges of shorter life. 

What about substituting glass wine bottles with other materials? Sarah points out that it’s very easy for customers to understand the recyclability of glass, which has a 70% recycling rate, compared to a mere 6% on plastic. If you switch to a plastic bottle it might have a lower carbon footprint but, in terms of recyclability, it’s probably a poor substitute.

There is also the customer’s viewpoint on the matter, as glass bottles have become a reassurance on the quality of the product. While customer’s perspectives of glass bottles might change if educated, this will require a drastic change in consumer behaviours. 

So, how did the panel respond to this point? In particular when thinking about how heavier glass bottles are normally associated with high-quality wines, Jessica says:  “For years and years in the trade in every area we’ve been using this as a great marketing tool and now it’s our downfall really because we’re trying to say well actually you know the bottle weight doesn’t dictate quality, which is complete opposite to what people have been told for years”.

What are the sustainable options available today?

Talking about “sustainable options” per se might be a bit of a stretch, as there currently aren’t any alternatives to wine glasses that are 100% eco-friendly and functional. 

However, during the webinar, a few solutions come to light:

  • Wine on tap and refills. Very common in France and Australia, this would give consumers the chance to bring their empty wine bottles to their local wine seller and get them refilled. Kim breaks it down, explaining the pros and cons of wine refills, in particular for the UK wine market.
  • Aluminium cans and bottles. While plastic containers, such as wine in a bag or Tetra Pak might work for still wines, things can get a little trickier with sparkling ones. Rowena points out that aluminium might just be the best material for wine, especially for sparkling ones. The downside, as pointed out by Jessica, is the economical difficulty behind testing out such materials!
  • Bag and box. Popular in Australia, this format is more familiar to customers, however the primary issue is with consumer perception. While it might be difficult to create a shift from glass bottles to bag and box, the difference this packaging could make is astonishing, being responsible for 75 grams of co2 for a gram and box, compared to about 670 grams for a glass bottle.

So, what are the key takeaways from the webinar? 

Mainly that there are multiple valuable alternatives to glass bottles on the market, however for any change to happen it will require the joint efforts of winemakers – big or small – across the world!

At North South Wines, we are constantly trying to improve ourselves and it’s these kinds of conversations that might spark the change we need to take a step in the right direction. Kim ended the webinar with: “There’s a lot that we need to do as producers, as shareholders, as distributors and supermarkets – we all need to get together and that’s the only way we’re going to win through.

While there might not be one perfect solution to the sustainability of glass, by educating consumers and guiding them to a more sensible purchase we can make the future of winemaking a lot brighter.

The webinar covers this and much more and is available to watch on YouTube now. So, whether you’re a wine producer looking to venture on a more sustainable route, or you’re a consumer willing to educate yourself, you will find plenty of helpful answers in the webinar!

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