PET projects fall short of a revolution

09 August, 2007

Is plastic really that fantastic,

Nigel Huddleston ask


Readers with long memories may have thought "so what?" on reading that Sainsbury's was to introduce two wines in plastic bottles.

After all, wine in ribbed, square PETs resembling bottles of blackcurrant squash were on sale in Britain's supermarkets

25 years ago.

But the crucial difference this time round is that the new Sainsbury's bottles have been designed to look just like glass wine bottles, which it hopes will help break

consumer perceptions that wine in PET isn't the real thing.

And there's a lot at stake, with lightweight plastic promising lower transport costs and carbon emissions than lugging containers of heavy glass bottles around the world.

Sainsbury's claims PET "doesn't compromise the quality of the wine" in any way, though convincing the British wine-buying public may not be so easy.

Consumer perception of the quality of glass versus plastic could be a bigger obstacle than that faced by screwcaps against traditional cork.

Wine writer Jamie Goode said in a recent blog that the Sainsbury's PET New Zealand Sauvignon had a "detergent edge - a bit like when you drink from soapy glasses that haven't been rinsed properly", though the other wine, an Australian Rosé Shiraz was "perfectly OK".


Howard Winn, product quality manager for wine at Sainsbury's, said there was no appreciable difference in wine quality between a PET and glass bottle, providing the former was within its shelf-life.

He added: "It's a three-month trial to begin with and we're only three weeks into it, so we've got neither negative nor positive comment back yet. It's very much a-suck-it-and-see approach".

But whatever the effect on taste, the limited shelf-life of PET compared to glass gives it obvious limitations, particularly for higher quality wines that might mature with age.

Winn said: "Obviously product quality is a factor and you could only do this with relatively high turnover product. But we're confident that there is no difference in taste."

He added that the plastic in the bottle, produced by Amcor, contained an "oxygen scavenger" which reduced the rate at which the wine would oxidise.

The wines have been shipped in bulk from New Zealand and Australia, reducing carbon emissions from bottling at source. British Glass says there is a 38 per cent saving on bulk shipment of wine from South Australia over shipping in glass bottles.

Once packaged and moved out to stores there are further fuel savings with plastic because the PET bottle weighs just 54g, compared with 400g for an average glass bottle.

Weight reduction

Although the launch has been high profile, other retailers are looking at ways to cut the weight of their packaging or use more bulk shipments.

Much of the activity is part of the GlassRite Wine project, instigated by the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme, which says that the wine industry changing its billion-plus bottles a year to the lightest available packs could save carbon emissions of around 990,000 tonnes a year.

But the focus has mainly been on shifting to lighter weight glass, or from brown to more recycling-friendly green and clear glass, not on plastic.

UK bottler Kingsland Wine & Spirit has reduced the weight of its entry-level wine bottles from 420g to 350g, with a further reduction to 300g scheduled for 2008, while its mid-range wine bottles have fallen in weight from 460g to 400g.

Constellation is building its own bottling facility near Bristol to increase the UK capacity for bottling bulk wine, and has reduced the height (by 7mm) and weight of Stowells and Echo Falls bottles to save an estimated 3,000 tonnes of emissions a year.

But a major shift to packaging in plastic could still be the biggest way for the wine category to cut its carbon emissions and transport costs, and some brand owners are taking bold steps.

Sainsbury's launch was inspired by the success of plastic bottles from Wolf Blass in the Canadian market last year, and FGL Wine Estates is now launching a Shiraz/Cabernet and Chardonnay under the name Green Label.

Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda are all listing the wines which will have a ­retail price of around £7.99. But perhaps significantly, FGL is talking up the convenience aspects of the product - in particular their use in sports arenas where glass is banned - rather than any green claims.

"We know that it needs less fuel to transport and that PET is easier to recycle than glass," says spokesman James Craig-Wood, "but we wouldn't want to suggest that we're experts on environmental issues."

Challenging targets

Two other leading brands, Arniston Bay of South Africa and Palandri of Australia, are collaborating on the E-Pak, a foil plastic pouch. An Arniston Bay 1.5-litre E-Pak, retailing for £9.49, is being launched in Tesco and a 25cl pack will follow.

Brand owner The Company of Wine People claims the pack has a shelf-life in line with wine boxes, and Jason Godley, category manager for wine at Tesco, is enthusiastic about the green credentials of the product.

Godley said: "We have set ourselves challenging targets to reduce packaging waste and reduce our carbon footprint.

"The pouch is great example of the innovation we need from our suppliers to contribute to meeting these targets."

But some major obstacles remain before plastic becomes a significant packaging force in the UK wine industry. Apart from product quality and consumer acceptance, there's the degree to which the industry is set up for or willing to invest in PET bottling.

The secret may be, as Sainsbury's hopes, in mimicking the shape of existing glass so that it can be filled on existing glass packaging line, though Winn admitted some modifications to the bottling line were needed to ­prevent the lightweight packs toppling over.

Tim Wood, technical manager at Corby Bottlers, which packaged both the Sainsbury's and Wolf Blass PETs, said: "The structure of the bottle meant that it would run on an ordinary bottling line pretty well, because it's relatively small. It's a different matter when you've got a 3-litre top-heavy lemonade bottle which has to be held by a neck ring.

"Obviously we had a lot of concerns about this and did a lot of line trails, but it's worked with our equipment though there will be bottling lines where it won't be able to run."

It seems at production level, as well as consumer acceptance, it's still suck-it-and-see time for PET wine.

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