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Explainer Feature

The Glass Wine Bottle Is Traditional, Beloved, and Bad for the Planet

Will a worsening climate crisis drive producers and consumers to embrace alternative materials?

Jeff Siegel By March 8, 2022
fragments of colored broken glass on a concrete surface.
Fragments of colored broken glass on a concrete surface. Photo by ognennaja/iStock.

Motor oil has great containers; plastic bottles with a screw cap designed to make it easier to use.

Yogurt has great containers, with the yogurt and the toppings in separate compartments, to make it easier to use. 

Ketchup and mustard have great containers, with the spout on the bottom, to make them easier to use.

So why does most wine still come in a centuries-old bottle that is heavy, awkward to use, breakable, and environmentally disastrous?

Blame everyone who drinks wine.

It’s consumer choice

“Yeah, I for sure talk about that,” says Charles Bieler, who makes wine in bottles, kegs, and Tetra Paks under a variety of labels in several countries and so understands the subject as well as anyone. “Wine is absolutely aspirational — and for many, the glass bottle is a critical part of the wine experience and that’s not going away. The glass bottle will remain the standard here.”

Ask retailers, winemakers, and marketers, and there’s a sense that wine has done such a good job teaching consumers that their product has to come in a glass bottle — the heavier the better — that it will be near impossible to convince them otherwise, even though almost all agree it’s time for glass bottles to go.

That’s because the glass bottle is wine’s biggest contribution to climate change, perhaps accounting for as much as one-half of a winery’s carbon footprint. Glass, of course, can be recycled, but the issue isn’t as simple as it sounds. Raw glass is made from sand, which is being extracted faster than it can be replaced. It’s also heavier than aluminum and plastic and requires more energy to transport, and its recycling rate is poor in most of the world; as little as one-third in the U.S. is recycled. The bauxite mining that produces aluminum is even more environmentally dire — but once aluminum is smelted, it can be infinitely recycled; about 75% of the aluminum ever mined is available for use. Although plastic recycling rates are notoriously low, PET and HDPE bottles are recycled at about the same rate as glass but weigh one-third less, which means they require less energy to transport.

“The whole issue is such an easy one,” says Rupert Joy, who is moderating a packaging panel for the Green Wine Future 2022 conference in May. “It’s just ridiculous that wine is still being packaged in a bottle, given the waste that still weighs more than a kilo,” or 2.2 pounds. 

By the numbers

At least 50% of the world’s wine is known to come in a 750-mL glass bottle; this figure may be as high as 75%, even though glass’ ecological inefficiency is well known. In 2011, the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the glass bottle’s carbon footprint — just from poor recycling rates, and not including manufacturing or shipping — equaled the emissions from almost 300,000 cars. By another estimate, wine shipped in bulk flexitanks from Australia to New York likely has a lower carbon footprint than wine shipped from California to New York in a truck in cases of bottles. That’s the difference that the weight of the bottle makes.

This is not to say that the wine business hasn’t tried — many times — to package wine in something else. Boxed wine, long popular in Australia, debuted in the U.S. in the 1980s as the first great packaging innovation, but never really took more than 10% of the market. Still, it has had success overseas, particularly in Scandinavia, and showed growth during the pandemic. Nielsen reported that boxes showed 31% growth in the 13 weeks ended June 13, 2021. 

Cans were the next big thing, gaining market share in the years before the pandemic began. Thanks to pandemic supply chain hiccups, the usage rate never surpassed more than the low single digits. Plus there has been surprising consumer resistance, according to a 2020 Wine Market Council study. It looked at cans and Tetra Paks, the juice box-style packaging, and found that “consumers always preferred wine in a bottle over wine in the other packages,” says Dale Stratton, who runs the council.

As for PET bottles, the plastic equivalent of the standard wine bottle, they have been one of the great packaging failures, flopping several times over the past 20 years despite a variety of high-profile marketing efforts.

“I’ve imagined a scenario where you had packaging for wine that had no carbon emissions, that was easy to recycle, and that let the wine age, and people still wouldn’t trust it. It’s so difficult to overcome the tradition and ceremony of wine.” — Rupert Joy 

No consumer demand

“We ship millions of bottles annually, and I’ve never had a customer ask about alternative packaging for the wine itself,” says Justin Hammer, the COO and owner for B-21 Fine Wine & Spirits in Tampa, Florida. “The packaging materials and the box for transit and shipping, yes, but never the bottle. I can’t imagine fine wine coming in anything other than glass bottles.”

And why is that? “There’s still some kind of an idea that wine in a heavy bottle is a better product,” says Maiju Sirvio, sustainable development specialist for Alko, Finland’s state-owned alcohol retailer. “We have to find a way to change this consumer perception and break this assumption. So far, it’s moving slowly.”

Sirvio is especially knowledgeable about alternative packaging; Alko, working with state retailers in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, prefers its suppliers use something other than glass bottles. And it has had some success — PET accounted for about 25% of the wine Alko sold in 2020 and cans were almost 13%. In Sweden, state retailer Systembolaget is pushing its customers into bag-in-box because it wants to move away from single use glass.

But, Sirvio acknowledges, progress has been slow, even though Finns are seen as more open-minded about both packaging and climate change and have some of the highest glass recycling rates in the world — close to three times better than the U.S.

Which leaves the bottle as wine’s packaging of choice.

“I’ve imagined a scenario where you had packaging for wine that had no carbon emissions, that was easy to recycle, and that let the wine age, and people still wouldn’t trust it,” says Joy. “It’s so difficult to overcome the tradition and ceremony of wine.”

Climate change is biting

But there is a sense that climate change can undo what wine has done. For one thing, most studies, including the 2020 Wine Market Council effort, found that younger consumers were more open to alternative packaging. As Joy notes with a smile, the only baby boomers with tattoos always seemed to be ex-sailors. The world’s two youngest generations, on the other hand, see ink as a normal part of their lives. So why won’t they accept PET bottles — the wine equivalent of a tattoo?

Some producers, including those who make luxury wine, also see a need for change. Molly Sheppard, who oversees sustainability efforts for Napa’s Spottswoode, says it’s not easy for a company that makes $200 bottles of wine to switch to PET without a customer revolt. It’s one thing to use something other than glass for most wine, which isn’t made to age. But luxury wines are made to last for decades, and glass remains the best package for that kind of aging.

What can be done, says Sheppard, is to lighten its glass bottle; today, it weighs about half of what it did several years ago. That change reduced Spottswoode’s carbon emissions by 10%.

In the end, the change will almost certainly be gradual — but it can change, says Michael Wentworth, the general manager for sustainability and strategic projects for New Zealand’s Yealands Wine Group

“There is very much a drive across the industry to reduce glass bottle weights, to increase recycled content, and reduce waste,” he says. 

For which the planet will be most grateful.