By: Sam Johnson
The process of designing sustainable packaging for liquids is a complex one. Today’s store shelves are lined with glass bottles of wine, spirits, juices, and more — all of which include packaging that may be elegant but is certainly not eco-friendly. For instance, in order to make glass, we need sand, and every year, the world uses 50 billion tons of sand to manufacture glass — a number roughly twice the amount that all the world’s rivers can produce. Moreover, removing this sand from riverbeds and shorelines disrupts ecosystems and leaves communities vulnerable to flooding. Glass is infinitely recyclable, but we make approximately 10 million tons of it every year, and our recycling statistics still have significant room for improvement. According to the most recent statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, we recycle only 39.8% of wine and liquor bottles and only 15.0% of other glass jars.
Unfortunately, rigid plastic bottles are not the answer. As a material, plastic has revolutionized the way we do business and the way we live, having become a necessity in everything from our food packaging to our textiles and electronics. But with the raw materials necessary to manufacture glass slowly running out, manufacturers are now seeking ways to make plastic packaging more sustainable.
The answer to this problem is minimizing waste and reducing the materials needed to package products. Reducing packaging waste means less waste to deal with at the recycling plant or ending up in landfills, resulting in less plastic finding its way back into our environment.
Current Packaging Options for Wine are not Sustainable
Today, it isn’t easy to imagine a wine industry without glass, cardboard, or plastic packaging. In relation to the broad scope of history, however, these packaging materials happen to be fairly recent inventions.
In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt treated cellulose from cotton fiber with camphor to invent the first synthetic polymer. While searching for an ivory substitute, he stumbled on a revolutionary material that forever freed manufacturers from natural materials such as stone, wood, metal, bone, or horn. Suddenly, manufacturers could make their own raw materials, which was hailed as a great win for the environment — plastic would save elephants, rhinos, and tortoises from the ravages of human greed, as well as put affordable manufactured goods within reach of all classes.
Roughly a century later, however, society’s optimism for plastic began fading. People first took note of floating plastic garbage on the ocean’s surface in the 1960s. Now, 8 million pieces of plastic pollution enter our oceans every day, amounting to 12 million tons of plastic waste dumped into the oceans every year. In total, we create 300 million tons of plastic waste each year — over 270 million tons of which end up in our environment after being dumped into landfills and oceans.
Despite the damage caused by plastic since its introduction to consumer markets over a century ago, recent studies have warned that the environmental impact caused by glass bottles — the primary packaging utilized by the wine industry — is even greater than that caused by plastic ones. According to experts from the University of Southampton who spearheaded one such study, “The environmental impact of glass bottles (new and recycled)…[was] the most [negatively] impactful packaging” for each category of drinks included in the study, “with plastic bottles always [showing to be] the second-most impactful.”
In essence, the University of Southampton study showed that, while traditional plastic packaging tends to cause a larger environmental impact “at the end of [its] life cycle,” glass bottles cause more harm to the environment overall. This is because glass bottles require more energy to produce and transport since they weigh more than other forms of liquid packaging, which releases greater quantities of carbon emissions at each step of their supply chain.
To compound this issue, the furnaces required to manufacture glass bottles run 24/7 and, according to AGC Glass Europe, “…cannot be stopped and cooled” so long as they are in operation, which typically lasts 15-18 years. Moreover, along with emitting larger quantities of carbon emissions (CO2), these furnaces can also release greater amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), further contributing to acidification and the formation of smog.
Alternative Packaging Solutions for Wine Have a Long Way to Go
In light of the costs and environmental impact associated with manufacturing, filling, and shipping glass bottles, wine-makers have increasingly looked to more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Perhaps the most common and popular of these is cardboard, which has given rise to the popularity of boxed wine among eco-conscious consumer markets.
While both glass and cardboard are considered to be equally recyclable, cardboard used for boxed wine boasts one primary advantage in regard to sustainability: a lower carbon footprint. Additionally, cardboard costs much less than glass bottles to produce and ship and poses far less risk of breaking than glass.
However, alternative packaging like cardboard for the wine industry is not without its drawbacks. For one, wine cannot be poured directly into a cardboard box — it must be contained within a plastic bag that is then placed in the box. As such, boxed wine cannot age, making it a less appealing option for consumers with a more refined palate or those seeking a bolder taste in their wine. Moreover, the inclusion of plastic bags in packaging for boxed wine inherently makes them a less-sustainable option for both manufacturers and consumers.
Although there are more environmentally-friendly packaging options available within the wine industry, none currently available are completely sustainable. In order to achieve this desired level of sustainability, manufacturers should look to ways that allow them to lower the base amount of packaging used through a practice known as source reduction.
How Source Reduction Can Make the Wine Industry More Sustainable
The overall goal of source reduction is to curb waste at the source before it is even created. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says source reduction is the most promising means to achieve sustainability.
The main goal of source reduction is to reduce the amount of material used in packaging so that less ends up in landfills or oceans when it’s no longer needed. To do this effectively, forward-thinking manufacturers must examine every stage of their packaging production process, from sourcing materials all the way down through shipping and disposal options after use.
Source reduction is the first step in any sustainable packaging strategy, and most manufacturers are finding that flexible packaging is the way to make it happen. The amount of plastic required for liquid packaging, for example, is cut drastically by using flexible packs instead of rigid plastic containers or bottles. Reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging means less plastic for consumers to recycle as well as reducing manufacturers’ carbon footprint by using less energy in the production process.
Source reduction also means ensuring that packaging does not add unnecessary weight or volume to products. Flexible packaging for liquids like wine is far lighter than heavy glass bottles. Less weight equates to less pollution from transportation costs.
Statistics prove that flexible packaging requires fewer resources and less energy to produce. For example, according to Robbie Fantastic Flexibles, a member of the Flexible Packaging Association, “the manufacturing of 780,000 flexible pouches consumes 87% less coal, 74% less natural gas, and 64% less crude oil in comparison to the manufacturing of rigid packages.”
Innovative and Sustainable Packaging for Liquids
There are new and more sustainable ways to package liquids that result in less waste and greater ease of use for consumers. The design of rigid plastic and glass bottles has not changed significantly since they hit store shelves a half-century ago. But today, some manufacturers are designing flexible plastic packaging for liquids that will provide circularity throughout their supply chain and the product’s lifecycle.
For example, one new alternative to consider comes from AeroFlexx in the form of the AeroFlexx Pak. These paks are produced with up to 50% recycled material and include a self-sealing valve, allowing consumers greater ease in dispensing only the amount of product desired at a given time.
Unlike traditional glass bottles for wine, these innovative valves do not need to be closed by consumers. When consumers knock a package off the counter, it will not spill. When they drop it onto the floor, it will not splatter, and they can hold an entire package upside down without any components escaping. In addition, products such as these remove the need for additional components in the wine’s packaging — caps, corks, and lids, for example — helping to further reduce waste for both wine-makers and consumers.
These new flexible packages will allow consumers to use every bit of the product they purchase.
Unlike boxed wine that frequently uses non-recyclable plastic in its containers and dispensers, innovative flexible packaging for wine has the added benefit of being curbside recyclable wherever other similar products are accepted.
For retailers who ship large quantities of glass bottles and jugs containing wine, flexible packaging will offer a way to transport that product without waste due to breakage. Furthermore, lighter plastic packaging means they pay far less for shipping.
When forward-thinking manufacturers design flexible packaging for wine with source reduction, sustainability, and recycling in mind, it creates a win/win scenario. These sustainable packaging alternatives require fewer plastics to produce and less energy to ship, saving money in production and transportation, as well as in potentially-wasted product.
These changes in liquid packaging are not just good for the environment — they leave a positive impact on everyone involved.
About the Author
Sam Johnson has spent a decade drafting, editing, and managing content across an array of industries including entertainment, technology, environmental, political science, government relations, and more. obtained his MBA from the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, in 2017. After graduation, he consulted with the Office of Technology Transfer at NASA-KSC to help commercialize environmental remediation technology for startups.