Packaging formats, recycling and improving sustainability

Published by Sally on May 16, 2009

A version of this first appeared in the Drinks Business, July 2008.

Consumers prefer glass bottles. And most Brits believe glass is an environmentally friendly form of wine packaging; more than for any other type of drinks packaging.  Innovation in wine packaging is rife, but what about the actualities of recycling so-called recyclable alternative packs.

As part of the drive to damage the environment less, weight is being designed out of packaging. Government-funded WRAP, the Waste Resource and Action Programme, has been driving the light-weighting of glass bottles, which so far remain consumers’ unchallenged favourite packaging format. By taking out weight, fewer carbon emissions are created during manufacture and transport. Part of the initiative includes shipping wine to the UK in bulk containers, and bottling in the UK at specialist bottlers. One whole container shipment can be saved this way.  Transporting one container of bulk wine is the equivalent of two containers of bottled wine. 

But a study by Reh Kendermann has shown there may be a greater element of sustainability to bulk ship to Germany, bottle there, then ship on to the UK. Their research looked not just at carbon emissions, but also how much recycled glass was used e.g. 34%, on average, in the UK, versus 90% for green bottles at Reh Kendermann, and energy sources – the UK average is just 4% renewable energy, and RK uses 16%. Their export sales director, Alison Flemming MW said: “There are obvious savings to be made when not bottling at source for new world wines, but perhaps it is not so well known that Germany has a distinct advantage in terms of reduced carbon emissions thanks to using the Rhine for transportation, as well as more effective, renewable energy use. We work with a number of partners in the UK and around the world on this basis.”

Can do

Rexam, makers of cans, have also been busy. They’re responsible for the recent launches onto the UK market – Wild Pelican, Elkan, Black Tower, as well as some prosecco brands.  John Revess, their marketing director said: “Consumer research showed young female consumers in England find the concept and product delivery of wine in a can appealing.  It’s light, it’s practical, it’s non-masculine. For sparkling white, why open a whole bottle, when you have the correct serving size.” 

He added, with the “number of single households increasing, single serve wines in 187 and 200ml are convenient. And cans are the most recycled drinks container in the world.”

The 18.75cl/20cl slim-line Rexam cans are well differentiated from a beer or carbonated soft drink can. But it is the Rexam fusion bottle that has been making waves recently. Stephen Howell, their breakthrough innovation manager said the “fusion can is new for the industry. We wanted to create a brand for the bottle, rather than create another can. We’ve fused standing can manufacture with a unique necking facility to produce something new and dynamic. It’s taken about 4 years in development and more than €4m in a pilot plant.”

Howell said there’s no reason not to use this for wine as well as other products. Only in May was the pilot plant opened, with the aim for full commercialisation by the end of 2009. Clearly the impetus for wine in a can could not wait that long.  As thought predicting success, a75cl fusion bottle is already on the drawing board.

On the technical side, as with bag-in-box and composite cartons, an internal food-grade barrier lining is required to prevent metal pick up by the wine.  This is the same coating used for other drinks, just thicker for wine. And on the oxygen front, still wines are dosed with liquid nitrogen which expands and pushes out the headspace oxygen immediately prior to sealing on the lid. It also gives a rigid feel to the filled pack.  

Yvon Mau‘s new brand, Jolie Terre, has overcome the squat PET bottle as ‘wine-stubbies’ equivalent, with an elegant, slim PET bottle, which is just as tall as its glass bottle equivalent. Technology is key here too. Their CEO, Philippe Laqueche said: “we are using a single layer barrier which has been improved, and we will use a [further improved] multi-layer barrier later this year.”

Perfectly proportioned portions?

Wine cans of 20cl for sparkling and 18.75cl for still fit the single serve idea perfectly. To this end, The Company of Wine People have brought out a 25cl pouch pack for Arniston Bay, following on from the success of the 1.5 litre pouch last year. The company’s brand and trade marketing manager, Felicity Billington, said: “we launched the 250ml this year to broaden the appeal to a different sector. 250ml is more for the convenience sector, for travel and events, festivals and sporting events where you can’t take glass into arenas; for catering and airlines. It’s much lighter to carry and it’s flat once empty, so less weight and space is use on board.”  She added women especially were interested in the concept.


Of the three ‘R’s (not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic), but reduce, re-use and recycle, a lot of energy has been invested in the first R, with lightweight packs of all descriptions.

Pouches and composite cartons such as Tetra Pak, SIG Combibloc and Elopak are evidently single use, but the re-use of glass drinks bottles is not currently on the agenda.  A reversion to the 1970s deposit system would certainly remove the high level of energy required to re-melt glass cullet to make new glass bottles, but it’s not so simple, said Rebecca Cocking, recycling manager at British Glass: “returnables are heavier, they have to be designed to go through up to 12 washes. The collection, transport and distribution and wash side also needs to be considered. There’s not necessarily a saving to transport empty bottles to a filling point.”

Despite energy-intensive production for, among others, glass containers, Cocking argued: “our raw materials are abundant, they’re readily available in the UK. If you do a life cycle assessment such as WRAP’s glass versus PET, the carbon footprint is not that different. Glass is indefinitely recyclable, and it doesn’t lose purity from the closed loop.” Closed loop recycling is where a glass container is recycled into a glass container. But it occurs only where glass colours are kept separate, so mixed kerbside collections, which meet Local Authorities weight-based packaging reduction targets, do little to promote the best practice of closed loop recycling.  

It is plastics recycling which came on in leaps and bounds during 2008, especially for composite cartons. Prior to this, said Andy Dawe, WRAP’s head of retail programmes “even though PE (polyethylene), HDPE (high density polyethylene), and PET are recyclable, they tend to end up in landfill because there’s nowhere to recycle them. But In last few years, Local Authorities have put in the infrastructure for HDPE and PET bottles.  Over 90% of LAs now have plastic bottle collection facilities.”

And some plastics fit well the closed loop model.  Dawe said: “PET/HDPE can now be put into closed loop recycling system. About half a dozen new plants are under construction in the UK to process material.  Empty bottles currently go to Europe, are processed, and plastic pellets come back into the UK for re-use. ”

Recycling of composite cartons has long been an issue. The need to separate the card from the plastic from the metal creates challenges, and even up to the end of 2007, composite cartons were one of the ‘recyclable’ materials that couldn’t be recycled in the UK. Germany though, manages to recycle 65-70% of its cartons.

However, said Richard Hands, chairman of ACE UK, the trade association for composite cartons said “a huge amount has happened on collection. We had little collection a year ago. Now 83% of LAs have carton collections, run by the carton industry. We have used a paper mill in Sweden which was extracting the cardboard for plasterboard liner, and recovering the plastic and aluminium as energy to power the mill. We’re expecting to shift to a mill in Norway which has a fully recycling solution,” and which uses a high proportion of renewable energy. This, he said, more than offsets the transport costs from the UK in terms of life cycle impacts.

Sustainable Consumption Institute

Without comprehensive life cycle assessments which consider not just carbon footprints, but also wider sustainability issues, it is difficult to gauge the relative merits of one system/product over another, and decisions are never linear.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) at the University of Manchester was set up last year, funded by Tesco, to look at some of the challenges. The SCI is undertaking academic carbon footprint studies on different types of drinks packaging – looking at industry averages for various types of packaging. Professor of sustainable chemical engineering, Adisa Azapagic, is leading this research. She said: “we’ve concentrated on the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the six main gases. Other sustainability aspects we are looking at include environmental impacts such as acidification, ozone layer depletion and eutrophication. But economic and social aspects are not included.

“The questions are very complex. This is industry average study,” Azapagic said, “you can come to opposite answers depending on what specific issues you took into account. When we do the specific pack analyses, the results could be different.

“And you can’t base decisions on one criterion. Image is important. If, for example, whisky manufacturers could be persuaded to bottle in green glass, we wouldn’t have a surplus of green glass in this country. 

In the end, consumers will decide their preferred packaging, and carbon footprints or wider sustainability and recycling issues may form only part of our buying behaviour.  Glass remains the favourite and it’s the only pack that’s fully inert, not requiring internal coatings. But, as with the screwcap initiative, industry is driving the innovation and watching what consumers like


Closures make up only 1-2% of the total wine pack.

Alupro, the industry organisation said “The lacquer or coating is burnt off in the de-coater after shredding, before re-melting in the same way as the paint on the exterior.  The screw caps go off for reprocessing, via a metal processor to remove the plastic cap from inside the lids and then on for recycling.”

Amorim‘s cork recycling trials in 2007 in the USA and Canada exceeded expectation.  Carlos de Jesus, director of communications said “we targeted 1 tonne in 12 months. In 8 months we’d already collected two tonnes. We were overwhelmed by the positive response, and we need to put in place the right logistics.”  He added: “In the UK, we’re in conversation with a leading retail chain to launch what will be the first natural cork recycling programme. We’ve established the CO2 impact of shipping corks back to mainland Europe and that impact makes the exercise worthwhile.”

The position on plastic stoppers is unclear.

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