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Can wine break free from glass?

A wine packaging trial offers hope for glass alternatives like recycled plastic and bag-in-a-box, and could dramatically reduce carbon emissions. By David Burrows.

Can wine be packaged in something other than glass? Undoubtedly. Wine is now available in aluminium cans, boxes (lined with plastic bags) and even PET plastic. Producers are changing formats in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – glass being responsible for around a third of the footprint of a bottle of wine. 

Whether drinkers will take to these alternative formats is the bigger concern, but results from a trial run by The Wine Society in the UK suggest there is hope for the alternatives to displace more and more glass.

“It was a nerve-wracking day when we first took delivery of the newly packaged wines and lined them up alongside their glass-bottled equivalents in our tasting room,” noted the Society in a January report. “Whilst showing some differences between formats, as might be expected given the timing differences between packing, our buyers were happy with the quality.”

The plan was to sell six wines – a white Burgundy, a Pinot Noir, a Fleurie, a Claret, an Austrian Gruner Veltliner and an English white – to Wine Society members (of which there are 180,000) in a glass 75cl bottle and a 2.25l bag-in-box (BiB). Four of the wines would also be offered in 75cl plastic bottles made from 100% post-consumer recycled PET (rPET). The trial would help better understand not only consumer appetite – and acceptance – of such formats but also the potential to expand and scale them. 

The formats also offer potentially considerable sustainability advantages. The rPET bottle for example is significantly lighter than the glass equivalent, and is recycled in household collections. The flattened shape also means 12 bottles take up the same space as around six glass ones. However, it wasn’t a straightforward solution: there is just one UK bottler of this format (of only three globally) and the volumes were not sufficient. Vineyard and winery Carr Taylor in Hastings put together a bespoke solution for rPET bottling to deal with the smaller quantities being used in the trial. 

The BiB option provided its own headaches – namely how to recycle the bag and tap. This is possible, through chemical recycling, but there remain questions marks not only over the technology itself and whether it is scalable, but also its environmental impact (in the EU and the UK currently there is debate over how much plastic is actually recycled through the chemical process, with policymakers and politicians weighing up the pros and cons of the so-called ‘mass balance’ approach).

Meanwhile, collection of flexible plastics from the kerbside won’t be mandatory in the UK for at least another three years. Glass is widely recycled but is the most expensive packaging material to decarbonise, according to research by Eunomia, a consultancy, and Zero Waste Europe, an NGO. Their forecast also showed the footprint of aluminium and PET plastic 500ml containers potentially dropping to 14gCO2e come 2050, compared to 57gCO2e for glass. The report showed that the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of packaging material are “consistently three to four times higher for glass bottles compared to aluminium and PET throughout the decarbonisation pathway. Even when accounting for uncertainties in each material’s pathway, it seems unlikely that this performance gap can be bridged, especially considering that glass’s projected endpoint by 2050 is similar to or higher than the emissions of aluminium and PET by 2030.” 

Glass-free

So, how did the trial go? BiB sold out very quickly while the rPET supplies lasted through the three-month trial. From 1,300 responses from its members, the Society found 72% were satisfied with the quality of the wine from the glass-free format and more than 90% are “likely to repurchase”. Willingness to try other glass-free formats stood at 86%. There are now plans to launch wider, ongoing ranges in these formats in the spring, and then next year set a target for the percentage of wine sold in “alternative, lower carbon packaging” by 2032.

The other work involves calculating the potential impact of these switches on the Society’s carbon footprint – which in 2021 stood at 16,488tCO2e. “The honest answer is that we suspect it may have [reduced emissions], but we cannot say yes absolutely or give an exact amount of carbon savings,” explained the Society’s head of sustainability Simon Mason. “We don’t want to claim anything we cannot at this stage prove.” 

Indeed, the Society noted in its recent carbon footprint report that: “While none of the LCAs [life cycle assessments] are perfect, there are significant carbon savings to be made from using alternative packaging materials and formats”. 

What can be said with confidence is that the use of BiB and rPET bottles reduced the packaging weight of the wine sold in the trial by about 15 tonnes. This weight difference alone provided “the potential to reduce the onward transport emissions of the wine sold in our trial by 31% over a 100km journey, compared to the same amount of wine in glass bottles. Not to mention savings also from increased space efficiency by using less bulky packaging”. 

The Society estimates it can cut emissions from packaging from 7,018tCO2e currently to 4,473tCO2 in 2032. This would be through 20% of volume moving to BiB, 10% to cans and 10% to PET bottles; there would also be lightweighting of glass, including 80% recycled content in glass and reducing the weight of cardboard. That 2,454tCO2e saving would cut scope 3 emissions by 16.5% – which is not to be sniffed at (unlike the wine which, whether in glass, plastic or a bag-in-a-box, seems equally as good).

Glass’s role in reuse

Eunomia said that PET and aluminium offer “more compelling” options compared to glass “in single-use applications”. Switching to different single-use materials can offer some gains (as well as unintended consequences) but in the long-term disposables won’t stack up against reusable alternatives. Glass could therefore have a role to play in what some see as truly circular options. “Given that glass is highly suitable for reuse, adopting a system that promotes reuse is likely to significantly decrease overall material demand,” said Eunomia. “Therefore, it would be informative to further examine decarbonisation pathways for beverage container materials while accounting for reuse.”