cork lying in puddle of red wine, isolated on white 13

The Grape Debate 01/24/11

Plastic-bottled wine is now better for our earth than glass-bottled wines. But, is it really the greener choice?


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If you’ve found yourself standing in front of the Woolworths wine selection of late, you might have noticed the plastic wine bottle.  Plastic?! I hear you ask. Yep, a wine bottle not made of glass, but plastic.

Intrigued, you might have read the labels on these bottles,  all pointing to their eco-conscious, green reasons for turning to plastic.  According to the Woolworths Good Business Journey 2010 report, the plastic bottle has “several green benefits: an overall reduction in shipping weight – and therefore carbon emissions – as it’s 80% lighter than a 750ml glass bottle; less energy consumption in its manufacture, compared to glass; and its smaller size results in savings in both transportation costs and storage space.”

I’ve seen both Backsberg and Woolworths offering this newly-packaged wine in plastic, claiming that the carbon footprint of the wine production process is reduced when compared to the manufacture and distribution of the glass bottle.  Food24 says that Backsberg is the first winery to “reduce the packaging and transport of wine” which “contributes significantly to our carbon footprint”. It is therefore a greener choice than the common wine-in-glass bottle.

I follow the green trend to find alternatives to plastic packaging, and if you follow the plastic bottle debate, you will know that the use of plastic is questionable.  It is not only filling up our landfills at an alarming rate (plastic takes years to breakdown), but is also filling up our oceans.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a gigantic floating rubbish dump of plastic… Bizarre eh?

I drink my daily water out of a BPA-free bottle, rather than reusing a plastic water bottle.  I do this so I can potentially avoid plastic that leeches chemicals into the water.  Also, I don’t want to contribute wherever possible to polluting our earth by throwing away plastic water bottles – what an expensive and wasteful exercise!

So when I saw these plastic wine bottles under the label “greener” and “better for the earth”, I questioned this. What happens if the bottle is exposed to heat/sun during the distribution process?  What happens to all the plastic bottles once the wine is finished? How many of us really recycle and will be encouraged to do so with these wine bottles?

Interestingly, when comparing the carbon footprint of glass versus plastic, plastic comes out tops according to this study and comparison, but no factors such as recycling or leeching are taken into account. Another study graphs its findings, showing you the impact of glass versus plastic.  It claims that PET 1 bottles, used for wine, are safe and protected against leeching…  Both studies therefore support the fact that plastic-bottled wine is a better choice than glasss for reducing the carbon footprint of the wine process and production.  If you don’t recycle though, you could be contributing to the pollution problem…Question that you need to decide for yourself is, is simply reducing your carbon footprint good enough in purchasing this wine, if you don’t recycle?

There are also a whole bunch of cultural concerns to take into account – Will the traditionalists stay true to the established feel and weight and look that glass gives wine?  Does plastic make wine more accessible, or does it ‘cheapen’ the concept?  For example, if given the option between boxed wine or glassed wine – wouldn’t you rather choose the glass wine?  If you look at the string of comments on Food24 it becomes apparent that many are in favour of this new concept.

Personally, what I would love to find out, is how much profit is made using PET bottles for wine rather than glass, if any at all. Is it purely a green choice, or is there some margin of profit involved?  It seems a great marketing point, I mean, wouldn’t you rather take a light-weighted Sauvignon Blanc in your picnic basket rather than a heavy glass one that needs to be lugged around?  And isn’t it cool to say to  your friends you are being oh-so-green by reducing your carbon footprint drinking plastic-bottled wine, new to South Africa? Indeed it seems like the perfect marketing tool… If it is cheaper to manufacture PET-bottled wines rather than glass and call your wines “green”, then I have a feeling you’ll have to start getting used to the idea as more wineries jump on the band wagon.

After all the considerations and questions I had, the only conclusion I can draw is that although buying plastic-bottled wine reduces your carbon footprint, there seems to be little research into what happens to the plastic once the wine is consumed.  At the end of the day, it is your sipping preference, lifestyle and impact on the earth that you need to consider before taking the gulp.

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13 Responses to this article

 
editor January 24, 2011 Reply

This does seem to be a tricky one. Instinctively, I can’t imagine that plastic is better, but it seems that the research suggests otherwise. I do think that as South Africans generally don’t recycle as much as they should, I fear that the plastic will end up in the landfill rather than being recycled.

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Simon Back January 24, 2011 Reply

Hi Laura,

I just spotted a really great report coming out of Sweden and Norway – the home of green – which compares the life cycles of various wine packaging options. You can view the report here http://bit.ly/hBPAD8. You will notice that in terms of global warming potential, air acidification, water consumption, abiotic depletion and primary energy use, PET compares favourably to glass.

In terms of the local context and the recycling question, recycling rates across the board have a long way to go in terms of catching up to the likes of Scandinavia. That said, the PET bottle we use at Backsberg is fully recyclable. For more on PET recycling drop off points you can see the PETCO site here http://bit.ly/g2DPzI.

In terms of leeching the PET bottles have ticked a number of boxes including the US FDA and Health Canada and as well as being approved in South Africa for the bottling of wine.

Shout if you have other particular questions.

Cheers,

Simon

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Joaquim Sa January 24, 2011 Reply

According to the first Life Cycle Assessment comparing glass to PET and aluminium, glass is actually the one with the most favorable carbon footprint.
This study took into account the complete life of a package – from the extraction of raw materials to the reuse or recycling of the container. Here’s a link to the article.

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/o-is-complete-life-cycle-assessment-of-glass–brings-clarity-to-carbon-footprint-conversation-92408504.html

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Simon Back January 24, 2011 Reply

Hi Joaquim, I can’t really comment on the press release without seeing more of the data on which it is based. That said, I do find it troublesome that the study was commissioned by the world’s largest manufacturer of glass packaging. I also can’t seem to spot an associated date of publication. Please see above for a link to an independent report commissioned by Systembolaget and Vinmonopolet of Sweden and Norway respectively, from September 2010. Cheers, Simon

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Paula January 24, 2011 Reply

There is a 3rd option. I recently became a convert to boxed wine. One box equals 4 bottles of wine, so it’s a lot less packaging. The cardboard box (and plastic baggie with spout) are all recyclable. I used to think boxed wine tastes bad, but I really like Botabox.

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editor January 24, 2011 Reply

Thanks for this idea. What I wonder, is whether you get the same quality of wine in plastic/ box wines. I would be interested in getting a perspective from someone in the industry. Is it just a perception that if it’s not in glass it’s not good? Are wine farmers reluctant to put any of their good wine in boxes? I will try find out more.

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Simon Back January 24, 2011

Hi Laura,

See my reply to Paula.

We have made a specific effort from our side to bottle good wine in PET. This has gone along way in combating the notion that perhaps you are somehow comprising on quality when you buy wine bottled in PET.

Obviously with it being a relatively new packaging format for South Africa, it has garnered mixed responses. On the whole, once people see the bottle and taste the wine, those with concerns are pleasantly surprised.

SB

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Simon Back January 24, 2011 Reply

Hi Paula,

Indeed, if you look beyond the 750ml bottle format, bag-in-box definitely provides added environmental benefit from a reduced packaging perspective.

One of the issues currently, at least in the South African case, is that the quality of wine that you can buy in boxes is not that great. Once again, if you look to the Scandinavian case they have examples of really decent wine that is in a box. Furthermore, there just isn’t the same stigma that we have here around the packaging, and producers can pretty good prices, making the whole thing more viable. SB

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Clare Montgomery January 25, 2011 Reply

We supply wine in plastic and glass bottles to pubs, restaurants and retailers across the UK so have done quite a bit of research into the environmental impact of both. In our case, the plastic PET bottle is 100% recyclable, including the screwcap which is made from plastic as well; less energy is required to produce the plastic bottles and as they are significantly lighter than glass, more can be loaded onto a lorry, cutting carbon emissions.

As for taste, we’ve carried out tests on wine in our particular plastic and glass bottles, and after one year there is no difference in taste between the two types – this was proven by blind testing with independent experts and laboratory analysis.

If you’d like to find out more then please get in touch.

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editor January 25, 2011 Reply

Hi Clare,
Thanks for the feedback. I would be interested in the research that you’ve done. While one year may be good – I do wonder what things will be like over a longer period?

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editor January 25, 2011

And while taste may be the same – has any research been done with regards to chemical leaching?

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Clare Montgomery January 27, 2011 Reply

Our wine ranges in plastic bottles are all about giving people the convenience of great wines in lightweight, unbreakable bottles. WIth this in mind, and given their retail price of between £5 – £8, they are generally consumed soon after purchase. They are not designed to be stored in a cellar for posterity!

There is no flavour transfer from the PET to the wine and this has been verified by CTCPA Centre Technique de Contrôle des Produits Alimentaires. Our MLP® bottle is considered as inert with a value 40 times less than the statutory tolerance.

I hope that answers your queries.

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editor January 31, 2011 Reply

Thanks for your response. So it seems then that plastic can’t really replace glass for all wines? Only for the easy-drinking, ready to consume wine.

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