Wine—How Plastics Can Help Reduce Its Environmental Footprint

Professor Plastic

Professor Plastic

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When I think of wine, I typically envision the glass bottle: its lovely shapes, the iconic “plunk!” when pulling the cork, the solidity of that heavy container in my hand.

Then one day I dropped a wine bottle, and it shattered at my feet. Red wine and glass all over my kitchen. Which led Professor Plastic (me!) to wonder: why not offer wine in plastic containers? I know my kitchen floor and walls would appreciate that.

And could lightweight plastics contribute to sustainability (and my eco-conscience)? I mean, given studies showing that plastic packaging can help reduce waste, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions, could plastics help reduce the environmental footprint of this global industry?

Many leaders in the wine industry have been asking the same questions and working hard to improve sustainability in their operations. And, in fact, many wines already are sold or shipped in plastics. And recent innovations in plastics are helping keep wines fresh and yummy … plus lighten their environmental load.

Plastic Bottles

Some (not a lot) of U.S. wineries actually do sell their wines in bottles made with plastic, typically PET, the same type of plastic used for soft drink bottles. For example:

  • Boisset Family Estates claims that its Fog Mountain brand offered the first California wine in a one-liter PET bottle. Some of the advantages—reduction in carbon footprint, less packaging—are explained in this video from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
  • Naked Winery in Oregon sells numerous wines designed for outdoor use, such as concerts or camping. The plastic bottles typically are much lighter than glass, which makes them easier to tote. Plus, this helps reduce fuel costs and emissions from shipping all that wine (so I can feel good about helping the environment while hiking through it to my campsite with my lightweight bottle!). You can watch the Naked Winery winemakers drop a plastic bottle of wine and discuss its advantages in this video.
  • Been on an airplane lately? You may have noticed that single serve wine bottles made of plastic now are the norm. You can check out this video in which one of the makers of these little bottles reviews some of the advantages of this lightweight, shatter-resistant alternative.

And what about recycling? Plastic bottles are widely recycled across the U.S., and their recycling rates continue to grow.

Sounds great … recyclable, lightweight, shatter-resistant, helps reduce fuel costs and emissions. Still, based on the wines stocked on store shelves, you probably already know that plastic wine bottles have not taken the country by storm, as some predicted a few years back. However, offering wine in plastic bottles is a much more common practice abroad, so perhaps we will see a greater shift in the future as global sustainability goals advance.

Box or Bag?

What about wine-in-a-box? No plastics there, right? Well … of course, the wine in those boxes is not really touching the cardboard (duh). The box basically is used to hold a bag that is made from plastic.

That bag and the plastic spigot do a good job of protecting the wine from oxygen, so the wine typically lasts longer than bottled wine that tends to go bad over time when the wine mingles with air after opening. So I can waste less wine—and I hate wasting anything, especially food and drink. Plus, the plastic pour spout just feels a bit safer in my kitchen or backyard—no messy concern about shattered bottles. Bonus: I don’t need a corkscrew.

While boxed wine may not have the same caché as bottled wine, it’s actually becoming quite popular. A study of non-restaurant sales figures conducted for Wine-searcher.com found that the boxed wine market doubled its share of the U.S. wine market from 2009 to 2014, when it reached 17.5 percent of all wine sold by volume. Wow. Then there’s also quite a bit of wine served in casual restaurants that starts out in a box … uh, I mean bag. That adds up to a lot of wine sold in plastics. Fortunately, it’s no longer primarily “plonk.” Even Wine Spectator rates some of them and has nice things to say.

Hmmm. I’m starting to feel better about wine. OK … so how else do plastics contribute to my eco-conscious Friday evening happy hour?

Tree Cork or Plastic Cork?

Traditional wine corks are made from cork oak trees that grow thick bark. The bark is harvested from time to time to make corks. One drawback: a contaminant common to bark corks taints one to five percent (depending who’s measuring) of bottled wine, resulting in a waste of resources … and my money. (Did I mention that I hate wasting things?) Today’s plastic corks typically are made of LDPE (low density polyethylene) plastic: a firm inner core holds the shape of the stopper and a spongy exterior is compressed into the bottleneck to form a seal.

Many consumers also find plastic stoppers easier to remove than cork stoppers that sometimes split or crumble, reducing those frustrating, losing battles with wine bottles that sometimes result in wasted wine. Some wineries are even encouraging innovative collection methods to recycle the plastic corks.

Screw Tops

While screw tops are made with aluminum, it’s really the small, round discs inside the cap—made from various plastics—that provide the seal needed to protect the wine. Some are even designed to regulate the amount of oxygen that can permeate the cap, behaving sort of like oak corks that allow wines to “breathe.”

According to a wine chemist (I love chemists!) at U.C. Davis, “Screw-caps and the synthetic cork are more consistent. Significantly more consistent … In New Zealand corks are nearly unheard of, and in Australia screw-caps dominate the market.” Not (yet?) so in the U.S.—in 2014, approximately 12 percent of 750 ml wines bottles in the U.S. used screw tops, according to Wine Business Monthly.

A Juice Box?

Are those multilayer boxes of wine with the plastic screw tops just fancy versions of kids’ juice boxes? Well, kinda. Wine packaging made from a layer of paper, foil, and plastic—similar to juice boxes—are quite popular worldwide for their portability, light weight, and practicality.

This packaging typically represents less than 10 percent of the total product; that is, <10 percent packaging, >90 percent wine, by weight. Glass typically weighs in at around half bottle, half wine. So these “juice boxes” use less material and can help reduce fuel costs and emissions when shipping. And like their wine-in-a-box cousins, good quality wines are increasingly turning to this handy packaging. Tastes good, feels good … I like that.

Cans? Really?

Yes, really. Winemakers even are offering wine in recyclable cans—lined with plastic to inhibit metallic flavors. For example, you may have seen Sofia (Coppola) single cans for sparkling wine on your latest night out. (Did you know that virtually all metal cans used for beverages are lined on the inside with a plastic coating to prevent the metal from reacting with the beverage?)

Moving a Lot of Wine

Let’s say you have a lot of wine in Australia that you want to sell in the U.S. Do you put all that wine in heavy bottles and then pack them into cases and ship them across the oceans? You could … or you could ship the pre-bottled wine in large—I mean really large—plastic bags, pack them onto a container ship, and fill the wine bottles closer to the wine drinker. It’s a growing trend among large wine producers who are looking to be more cost effective and to reduce the environmental footprint of making and shipping wines.

Next?

There are many other ways that plastics make possible the wine you may be serving with dinner, from lightweight crates for grape harvesting to thin single-serve pouches and recyclable goblets that are growing in popularity.

Boxes, bags, pouches, corks, liners, seals … Apparently efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of shipping and serving wine are leading to some pretty innovative changes. Given my mishap with the bottle, I for one am happy about this. Plus, it makes me like my pinot noir even more.

Now: chardonnay versus pinot grigio. Let the debate begin!