Log In / Join Now

Magazine Archives: March 31, 2012

Going Beyond Glass

How different types of wine packaging stack up
Dana Nigro
Issue: March 31, 2012


If you've ever hoisted a case of wine up a flight of stairs, you know how heavy all those glass bottles are. Now think about how much energy was expended to move the roughly 3 billion cases' worth of wine produced globally in 2011. All those wines travel by trucks, trains, planes, ships or cars-usually with stops en route at distributors, importer-exporters or retailers-before they reach restaurants and consumers' homes.

Transporting wine remains one of the industry's biggest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, according to two recent studies published in the Journal of Wine Research. No wonder eco-minded wine producers are switching to lighter-weight, more affordable, streamlined packages that can be easily compacted, widely recycled or even reused.

"By cutting down on the total weight of the package, you start reducing the overall carbon footprint of the product," says ecoVINO owner Chris Large, who sells organically grown wines in plastic pouches.

For wines meant for early consumption, glass doesn't always make the most sense. "Glass is designed as a multiple-use container, and in wine it's a throwaway, for single use. In America, most glass ends up in a landfill," says Charles Bieler, co-founder of Three Thieves and The Gotham Project. (See the chart on page 75 for U.S. recycling rates.)

No one is giving up on glass just yet. Manufacturers have introduced lighter bottles that are as little as half the weight of their traditional counterparts. But in the past decade, producers have also put quality wines into kegs, mini-barrels, bag-in-the-box, plastic or aluminum bottles, cartons and pouches-offering convenience for by-the-glass pours or when glass is too heavy or inappropriate. Some wineries offer refillable jugs, snap-top bottles or stainless-steel canteens for customers who live in easy travel distance.

One drawback for many alternative packages is the shorter shelf life, often only a year or less before wine quality starts to deteriorate. And earning customer acceptance takes time, says Bieler, who sells wine in kegs and Tetra Pak cartons. While alternative packages intrigue people, he says, that's "followed by needing more info to help them wrap their heads around it."

To help readers get a handle on some of the more popular packages, as well as newer products, we break down their benefits and drawbacks. We've grouped the packages roughly in order of level of current usage for retail consumers plus future interest, followed by a bulk option for restaurants and a look at the possible future of packaging.

GLASS BOTTLES
Renewable: No
Recyclable: Yes
Reusable: Yes
Biodegradable: No
Packaging weight: 3.6 kg to 10.8 kg per 9L case (12 bottles)

Glass has a lot going for it. Nothing beats it for preserving fine wine, safely, for decades, without imparting flavors or toxins, while keeping oxygen at bay.
It's made from abundant, cheap materials such as sand, soda ash, limestone and scrap glass. It can be recycled back into bottles an unlimited number of times, without creating waste or byproducts.

But-and it's a big but-glass requires a lot of energy to make, as the materials must be heated to 2600° to 2800° F to be molded. And it's heavy: While the most commonly used 750ml bottles in North America now range from 17 to 20.3 ounces (480 to 575 grams), Champagne bottles can tip the scales at 900 grams.

Not nearly as much glass is recycled as could be (see chart). Although colored glass protects wine from damaging ultraviolet light, places like the United Kingdom, which imports far more wine than it makes, have a surplus of green wine-glass that they can't turn into clear glass for other products.

New technologies allow manufacturers to strengthen glass so that less material is needed and it can be produced more quickly, using less energy. New eco-lines run about 14 to 16.5 ounces (397 to 467 grams), with some bottles as light as 300 grams. Champagne bottles have been trimmed to 830 grams.

If the glass container industry meets its goal of using 50 percent recycled glass in all new containers by the end of 2013, it would reduce carbon emissions for each kilogram of glass by nearly 12 percent from its 2007 baseline of 23 percent recycled glass, according to the Glass Packaging Institute.

Reusing bottles could reduce glass' carbon footprint even more but the United States no longer has the national infrastructure to do so. A California company's effort to offer bottle washing, sterilization and sorting to wineries hasn't got off the ground yet, despite interest from some major players, leaving only a handful of small wineries to offer refills to local customers.

BOXES AND BARRELS
Renewable: Yes
Recyclable: Yes
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: Yes
Packaging weights: 3-liter box, 450g/9L; Bag refills for barrel,68.5 grams/10L

Popularized in the 1970s, the vacuum-sealed bag-in-a-box is the most widely used alternative wine packaging. At 1.5L to 5L retail sizes (or larger for restaurants), it's very efficient, taking up less space for shipping and storage than the equivalent bottles. The cardboard portion is entirely recyclable, so only around 30 percent of the material ends up in a landfill. The bag and tap may be recycled with "mixed" plastics (those labeled as #7) and later made into pallets, building materials and auto parts, but curbside recycling of those components is not widespread.

Unlike glass, bag-in-box is not great at preserving wine for the long-term, though it is better at keeping opened wine fresh in the short-term. (Producers say up to six weeks, but Wine Spectator tastings indicate two to three is optimal.) As the spigot dispenses the wine, the plastic-based pouch collapses, preventing contact between liquid and air. The bags are free of BPA, a chemical found in polycarbonate and some other plastics that may disrupt human hormones and affect health. But the bag materials let in small amounts of air over time, leading to oxidation, so the wine should be consumed within one year of the packaging date on the box.

While boxes are often affiliated with mediocre wine, that perception is being overcome as more producers package better-quality wines in more attractive boxes, such as Wine Cube, Black Box and Bota Box.

For a more upscale approach, Boisset Family Estates introduced a "barrel-to-barrel" program for restaurant by-the-glass service and plans to offer it for home use this year. Its Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon and De-
Loach Pinot Noir come in real oak barrels, in 3L or 10L sizes; when empty, only the thin refill bag (in a basic brown paper box for easy shipping) needs to be replaced. For a 10L bag, the weight works out to about
1 gram per glass. "It's 99 times less surface-to-volume," says president Jean-Charles Boisset. "We feel this is probably the best innovation after the Tetra Pak."

TETRA PAK CARTONS
Renewable: Yes
Recyclable: Maybe
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: Maybe
Packaging weight: 302 grams to 404 grams/9L case equivalent

Tetra Pak touts stats such as a 96-to-4 product-to-packaging
ratio (a wine bottle is about 60-40) for its cartons, which are typically found in 1L and 500ml sizes for wine. Since they can pack flat, one truck of empty Tetra Pak cartons equals 26 trucks of empty bottles.

Tetra Pak cartons-already familiar to shoppers for soup, juice and shelf-stable milk-stand out among alternative packaging for their rapid growth after first being introduced to the United States for wine in 2004. Brands such as Bandit, French Rabbit and Yellow + Blue are sold exclusively in cartons. Boisset, whose company has also tried aluminum and plastic bottles, says, "This is really the best of the best for wine."

The resealable cartons are made of about 70 percent paper, of which an expected 50 percent will come from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sources in 2012. Layers of aluminum foil and polyethylene plastic make the package liquid-tight and provide barriers against air, light and contamination; Bieler recommends a shelf life for wine of 12 to 18 months. These layers also make separating out the individual materials for recycling more difficult. However, the cartons should be accepted anywhere that takes milk cartons, and Tetra Pak is working to increase recycling rates. (The Carton Council lists communities with carton recycling and information on how to mail in cartons for recycling at www.recyclecartons.com.)

ASTRAPOUCH
Renewable: No
Recyclable: Maybe
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: No
Packaging weight: 288 grams/9L case

Looking like a giant Capri Sun juice pouch for a kid's lunch, the AstraPouch is a sturdy bag-without-the-box that stands up on its own. Like boxed wines, it comes in sizes from 1 to 3 liters, with the same one-way nozzle to keep out oxygen, and the same shelf life. But since the pouch is flexible, durable and quick-chilling, it's convenient for beaches, poolside lounging, hiking and camping. Launched in 2008 and introduced to the U.S in 2010, it's now used by eight premium wine brands, including ecoVINO and Clif Family Winery's The Climber in the 1.5L size, as well as for ready-to-drink cocktails.

AstraPouch's main eco-advantage is its ultralight weight: "A full, 9L case of our wine weighs 23.6 pounds, significantly lighter than your average bottled case at 35 to 40 pounds," says ecoVINO owner Chris Large. And it's thin; 10 pouches take up the space of one glass bottle in a landfill. The BPA-free plastic-layers of food-grade polyethylene and PET-can be recycled with #7-labeled mixed plastics in communities that accept that type.

PLASTIC PET BOTTLES
Renewable: No
Recyclable: Yes
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: No
Packaging weight: 540 grams/9L case

Though at quick glance on a store shelf, a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle can look much like an ordinary wine bottle, plastic has image problems. "The technology is brilliant," says Boisset, whose company tried PET for three brands but has since switched those to lightweight glass. "But the consumer and the trade haven't been bullish on it." Plastic can look and feel cheap-as if wine is no different than an everyday bottle of water.

Most PET is petroleum-based and doesn't biodegrade. But the production process uses less energy and results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than that for glass, and the #1-labeled plastic is widely recyclable, used to make bottles, fleece and carpet.

Though it's nonreactive, PET lets in more oxygen than glass, so it's not ideal for protecting wine. Shelf-life claims range from six months to two years before oxidation becomes noticeable. However, Sutter Home uses bottles with an ultrathin glass lining for its single-serve wines and has found they have a shelf life similar to traditional glass, while remaining fully recyclable.

ALUMINUM
Renewable: No
Recyclable: Yes
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: No
Packaging weight: Cans, 432 grams/9L case equivalent; FLASQ, 953 grams/9L case equivalent

With so many beverages available in aluminum, why not wine? It doesn't shatter, it's quick-chilling and it blocks light. Plus, aluminum may be recycled infinitely, and cans are recycled more widely and profitably in the United States than glass or plastic bottles.

Wine producers have been dabbling with cans for some time. California's Francis Ford Coppola Winery launched the Sofia Mini sparkler in 2004 in a 187ml pink can with a straw, while Barokes, in Australia, has been canning bubblies and still reds and whites in 187ml to 250ml slim cans since 2003. The winery claims its patented system keeps wine stable for more than two years. Ten other Australian wineries have licensed the system.

Sleek aluminum bottles have the advantages of resealable screw caps and a more-familiar shape. Boisset tried 750ml
aluminum bottles with some releases of Mommesin Grand Reserve Beaujolais. In 2011, a new California brand, FLASQ, debuted with three wines in U.S.-made, aluminum 375ml bottles, priced around $6 to $8; this year, parent company JT Wines is expanding production capacity. As with most other packaging alternatives, they recommend drinking the wine within six months to a year.

KEGS
Renewable: No
Recyclable: Some types
Reusable: Yes
Biodegradable: No
Packaging weight: 4.5kg/10L; 5.7kg/19.5L

After some fits and starts in the 1980s, fine wine on tap-either from a draft system or free-standing kegs-has taken off in the past few years. With a typical keg holding 26 bottles, restaurants can offer by-the-glass and carafe pours more cheaply, while cutting waste from glass and wine spoiled by oxidation. Protected by inert gas, wine can stay fresh for about two months in a tapped keg, or up to a year in a full keg. Emptied stainless-steel kegs can be returned repeatedly for washing, sterilization and refills, with a lifespan of up to 30 years.

Several companies-including MÁS Wine Company, N2 Wines, Silvertap and Vintap in California and The Gotham Project in New York-sell their own wines only in kegs or distribute other brands in kegs. Other producers, such as Napa's Long Meadow Ranch, offer a few of their wines in bottles or kegs to restaurant clients or, in the case of Washington's Piccola Cellars, in minikegs for home use.

For logistical reasons, most keg use is concentrated around West Coast wine country and in the densely populated Northeast. "We don't want to be shipping empty kegs thousands of miles across the country," says The Gotham Project's Bieler.

He, N2 Wines and other wineries are working on a network of regional filling stations so kegs can be exchanged. "My dream is to have no keg travel more than 500 miles from where it's filled and emptied and back again-ideally less than that." Other wineries return kegs to their distributors for reuse, while MÁS and Great Oregon Wine Company are also trying recyclable, single-use kegs-20L, 2.1-kilogram PET plastic and 30L, 3.3-kilogram steel, respectively.

PAPER? YES, PAPER
Renewable: Yes
Recyclable: Yes
Reusable: No
Biodegradable: Yes
Packaging weight: 660 grams/9L case

Unveiled in late 2011, the GreenBottle-a sturdy shell of pulp-molded paper with a thin plastic liner-promises a wide range of eco-friendly features: It's lightweight and, unlike plastic-laminated cartons, most of it is not only recyclable but compostable, breaking down in a few weeks.

Pull a tab to break open the bottle and tear out the liner; it takes up less than 0.5 percent of the landfill space of a typical plastic bottle. (The final liner formulation may end up being recyclable with #4-labeled plastic bags.)

It's too soon to tell if the customizable GreenBottle will be adopted, but it has the advantage of being bottle-shaped, avoiding one image hurdle faced by boxed wines. Its British inventor, Martin Myerscough, already introduced a similar milk container now in use at U.K. grocery chain Asda. Currently in talks with wine producers and supermarket companies, GreenBottle hopes to get the container to U.K. markets this year and intends to sell the technology to larger wineries to produce their own, eliminating the emissions that come from shipping empty containers.


WineRatings+ app: Download now for 300,000+ ratings.