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The Bottle is the Culprit

wine bottling line

November 18, 2022 —  A popular topic of discussion these days is about reducing our impact on the environment in every conceivable area, including the wine industry. 

Does it start in the vineyard?  Happily, in most wine-growing regions of the world, wine growers big and small, are very conscious of good farming practices.  Wine’s carbon footprint isn’t in the cellar either. So what’s the problem?  It turns out the problem is the glass bottle:  its manufacture and its delivery to the consumer.  Glass is recyclable but it is heavy and heavy means it costs a lot to transport, often over great distances.  And while it is recyclable, less than one third of glass collected by recyclers is actually recycled in the USA according to the EPA.  The other two-thirds-plus ends up in landfill. 

In the U.K. they have the same problem.  Decanter Magazine recently wrote:  “A group called Wine Traders for Alternative Formats (WTAF), highlights the environmental impact of glass manufacturing and recycling. It notes that switching from glass to alternative formats could save ‘well over a third of the carbon footprint of wine consumed in the UK’ – the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road overnight.”  And they drive small cars over there.  Haven’t seen the math for America yet but it will show up, for sure.

Anyway, the bottle is the problem and there’s a move afoot to find alternative packaging.  Bag-in-Box or BIB is one that’s gaining popularity right now.  The BIB system of a flexible bag inside a box was pioneered and patented by William R. Scholle in 1955 in the USA, and it was initially used to safely transport battery acid. About 10 years later, Australian winemaker Thomas Angove, patented a collapsible plastic bag inside a box for wine.  It was wildly popular in Australia even though originally one had to take the bag out of the box and snip a corner to pour the wine, then stuff the bag back inside its box. Imagine doing that with a full bag of red wine! Before someone had the idea to add a tap, there was no seal so a paper clip was the next best thing.   Amazingly, it still caught on. 

Wine bottles stored horizontally

BIB never gained popular in the United States or Europe probably for two reasons.  The wines were “cheap and nasty” and to wine lovers, it was unthinkable.  After all, since Roman times, wine had come in glass bottles.  Even bottle shapes were specific to famed wine-growing regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy.  In an industry steeped in centuries of tradition, BIB meant no more romance of a cork being pulled, the bottle being displayed and the label admired and more.

However, times are changing.  Because of costs of transportation, ease of handling and shelf space in retail stores, BIB is getting a new lease on life. Most wine is purchased and consumed in 24 hours and certainly within weeks of purchase.  Better wines are finding their way into the box and eco-conscious millennials search out products and companies that are environmentally friendly.

BIB poses its own recycling challenges with the double layer of plastic lining, spout and plastic handles.  Other packaging is being explored such as kegs, cans, thin, flat plastic bottles (See more here) which we wrote about in July 2020 and paper bottles (See more here) which we wrote about in November 2013.  (Note:  Paperboy Wine was sold several years ago and is no longer available.)  Another innovative package still in development is stand up pouches. 

Not everybody is giving up on bottles yet.  Decanter mentioned the efforts of Catalan producer Miguel Torres “… who has been a pioneer in more sustainable wine, feels that the priority is to reduce the weight of glass bottles and campaign for glass manufacturers to create a standard reusable bottle that can be widely returned by customers and reused.”  Returning bottles for washing and sterilizing is another option that comes with complications all of its own.  In the meantime, watch for more states to apply CRV fees to all wine and spirits bottles.  In 2024 California will implement this policy joining Hawaii, Iowa, Maine and Vermont.

Old winebottles covered in dust