March 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Looking Again at Glass

Despite competition, glass bottles still rule

by Jane Firstenfeld

  • The vast majority of wine sold in North America is still packaged in glass bottles.
  • Bottle suppliers are making concerted efforts to improve their carbon footprints from the ground up.
  • Shipping accounts for only 5% of the carbon footprint for modern lightweight bottles.
Wine packaging has taken giant strides during the past decade, providing more options for containers and closure. Many wineries now insist on eco-friendly containers, and many suppliers have stepped up to satisfy their needs with bag-in-box, TetraPak, Astrapouches, plastic and aluminum bottles, flasks and single-serves. But the overwhelming majority of wine in North America is still sold in glass bottles—and not just because that’s the traditional package.

Less than 10 years ago, the industry was doubtful that consumers would accept synthetic corks (let alone screwcaps), and bag-in-box (BiB) was limited to extremely low-end wines. This has all changed, but the fact remains: Glass is clearly king in terms of units sold.

Recent figures from our data partner Symphony IRI Group show that glass bottles (from 187ml to 4 liters) accounted for 82.8% of wine sales by volume for the year ending Nov. 28. During the same period, sales of standard 750ml bottles remained stable; single-serve 187ml bottles declined 1.4%; 1-liter bottles dropped 2.3%, and larger format 3L and 4L bottles dropped 2.6% and 1.6% respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, SIRI reported that simultaneously, BiB sales also declined in the 3L (down 2.2%) and 5L (minus 1.1%) sizes. Only aseptic (TetraPak and similar presentations) containers grew—by 10.3% in the half-liter and 1.6% in other sizes.

Nevertheless, North American purveyors of glass wine bottles responded to the perceived competitive threat by providing greener options and ramping up promotion for recycling programs. Top suppliers including Owens-Illinois (O-I) and Verallia (formerly Saint-Gobain) became top sponsors at events like the annual Green Wine Summit in Santa Rosa, Calif., where company representatives explained their green initiatives to audiences motivated by environmental and cost concerns.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection  Agency presented its Energy Star award to Verallia’s Fairfield, Calif. distribution center, honoring its energy-efficiency.

Industry rolls out innovation
As we reported in “Save Costs and Shelf Appeal” in our January 2010 issue, Verallia, O-I, Global Package LLC, Encore! Glass and other longtime bottle suppliers turned up the green with lighter weight bottles in traditional colors and shapes to save manufacturing and shipping costs.

For a picture-window overlook of the glass wine bottling industry, we spoke with Joe Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute ( According to Cattaneo, the wine segment represents only about 6% of North America’s glass packaging industry. However, “It is the most profitable part of the glass container industry,” he said. “We get higher value from the wine industry.”

Cattaneo stressed the flexibility of styles, sizes and closure options available for glass bottles. Although closures are chosen and purchased separately from bottles, “We set the standards on finishes for the glass.” The closure industry sets its own standards, he pointed out, adding, “We’ve worked with them for years.” GPI is working, too, at meshing its standards with those of producers in Europe and South America, Cattaneo said.

While most wine bottles adhere to traditional shapes, and sizes are mandated by federal regulation, “A lot of wineries like their own look,” Cattaneo pointed out. The GPI’s annual Clear Choice Awards recognize outstanding bottle designs, among other categories.

Wineries can work with their glass suppliers to create unique shapes, colors and bottle décor, but unless they plan to bottle their vintages by hand, the bottle necks must accommodate standard closures and bottling machinery. As detailed in “Wine Bottlers Talk Quality” in our July 2010 issue, some wineries that turned to inexpensive lightweight bottles imported from China suffered costly problems on bottling lines, caused by irregular necks. Reputable suppliers maintain quality control to avoid these slowdowns.

Lightweights welcome
“Light-weighting has become the mantra,” Cattaneo conceded. “It moves the product faster and will do the same job for the wine, to a degree. Lighter weight would be better environmentally.” Although lighter weight bottles require fewer raw materials and leave a lighter carbon footprint throughout product life, “In our industry we measure not by weight but by unit. Selling more units with less glass is better,” he said.

Owens-Illinois, Perrysburg, Ohio, which claims to be the “world’s leading glass company,” is among many suppliers leading the industry’s environmental efforts. Since 2006, O-I’s president of global glass operations L. Richard Crawford has chaired GPI’s board. In 2007, O-I set 10-year goals for its sustainability portfolio, including reduction by half of energy use, and emissions reduction of 65%. GPI membership set an industry-wide goal to use 50% or more recycled materials by 2013.

At the 2009 Green Wine Summit, Jay Scripter, O-I’s VP of sustainability, detailed the company’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which provides a complete picture of the carbon footprint of glass containers and comparison with alternative packaging materials. In a January interview, Scripter said the peer-reviewed LCA extends “all the way from something being pumped or dug out of the ground,” through manufacturing demands, transportation costs and ability to be recycled.

Glass, he said, is endlessly recyclable within a closed loop—that is, bottle-to-bottle. “We are of the opinion that recycling benefits should go back to what it came from. If (a material) is down-cycled into carpet, we don’t understand it.” (See “Wine Bottles Born Again” on p. 45.)

According to Scripter, “In this nation we have 25% post-consumer recycling” of glass containers. Once glass has been recycled, it is ground into “cullet” and re-formed into new containers. “For every 10% more cullet used, emissions drop by 5%,” he said. “Our goals demand we reinvent the processes of melting, and we have several projects in R&D to do just that, by changing energy sources and the type of energy required” to complete the process. 

Bottle manufacturers pay for recycled glass from both commercial and consumer sources, he said. Because the recycling process is now highly automated and computerized, “We can very accurately determine the energy savings” along the entire supply chain.

Competitors in the wine packaging arena often tout lighter shipping weights. Scripter argued that transportation accounts for only 5% of O-I’s carbon footprint, which, he contended, could be reduced substantially only “if the glass were floating in air.” He pointed out that O-I, like other major glass suppliers, has glass plants strategically located near clients, including two in California’s East Bay, further reducing shipping impact and costs. The GPI lists cullet plants in some 30 states.

Lightweight, diminutive footprint not withstanding, the most basic function of wine packaging is to protect its contents. The endless debate about wine closures focuses not just on contamination but also oxygen ingress. Glass bottles have retained immunity in this argument: They are virtually impermeable to gases and vapors. “Unlike plastic, cans and multi-layered or bag-in-box cartons, glass does not need any plastic layers or other additives to preserve the taste of wine,” according to the GPI website, which also states: “Glass-packaged wine will never have a sell-by date.”

There is one disadvantage to this longevity: Wine cellared for decades in glass bottles may take a long time to enter the stream of recycled cullet.

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