Recycled plastic wine bottles cut costs and carbon emissions – but are they ‘greenwashing’ and perpetuating plastic pollution, asks Christine Boggis
Glass bottles and transport are the biggest producers of CO2 emissions in the wine industry. Plastic bottles are lightweight, easy to transport and cut cash and carbon costs throughout the production and distribution process.
But environmental advocates have accused plastic producers of greenwashing, saying the packs are not as recyclable as they claim – and even raised health concerns over the use of recycled plastics.
Romanian winery Cramele Recas has developed a wine bottle made entirely from recycled plastic recovered from the Danube river, and launched its Richtig Lecker Cabernet Sauvignon in the pack.
Packaging company Packamama has created a flat-shaped 75cl bottle that echoes the traditional wine bottle shape and is made from 100% PET which is both recycled and recyclable. It has also teamed up with Prevented Ocean Plastic, a high-quality, food-grade recycled plastic material that has been collected from coastal areas at risk of ocean plastic pollution, to source materials for some of the bottles.
Quick recap: what exactly are recycled plastic bottles made from? The type of plastic that can be most easily recycled is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. PET is one of the most commonly used plastics. It is made from a combination of oil and petrochemicals and is particularly common in packaging, which makes up around 40% of plastic demand in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency.
So-called virgin PET can be recycled, and the resulting material is known as rPET. In the recycling process the plastic is collected, cleaned, broken down into pellets and remade into various products, including new plastic packaging and fibres used in clothing and other fabrics.
According to Prevented Ocean Plastic and other industry sources, rPET can be melted down and transformed into new materials again and again. But conservationists argue that, in reality, plastics lose quality in the recycling process, so a single piece can be recycled a maximum of one or two times.
Recycling blog Plastic Expert explains: “Plastics lose their quality when they’re recycled a number of times. The more you recycle plastic, the worse it gets. As such, the majority of plastics only get recycled once and then used in other products.”
And that is before you get into the complexities of which plastics can be recycled where – which varies enormously both around the UK and internationally. Just 9% of plastic waste is recycled globally, and plastic production is forecast to triple by 2060, with only a minimal increase in recycling predicted, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development.
A new report from environmental organisation Greenpeace says more recycling isn’t the answer to the growing plastic pollution problem. In Forever Toxic: The Science on Health Threats from Plastic Recycling, it argues that plastics, both virgin and recycled, contain toxic chemicals which can leach into the foods they contain, and are linked to cancer, obesity and other health issues.
Santiago Navarro, chief executive and founder of environmentally friendly packaging business Packamama, says that using the generic term “plastic” for a complex and widely varying group of polymers is “unhelpful”. He says the Greenpeace report makes “sweeping generalisations”, and notes that Packamama’s rPET bottles are approved for food contact to the most rigorous EU and US standards.
Navarro says: “PET has a branding issue it will need to overcome. This is worth doing, as recycled PET or rPET is a wonder material.”
Because mixed-material packs aren’t recyclable after use, the only available materials for wine bottles today are glass, PET and aluminium.
“Of these alternatives, PET has by far the lowest environmental cost and impact,” Navarro says. “Additionally, recycled PET is significantly lower in emissions and energy than virgin PET. Therefore, rPET wine bottles are the kindest wine bottles on the planet. They are also highly scalable and cost effective compared to the soaring price of glass.”
THE NEED TO TAKE A STAND
Philip Cox, owner of Cramele Recas, says rPET meets his most important criteria for alternative packaging: it looks like glass; works on existing wine packaging equipment; is light enough to offset transport emissions; can be made from fully or partially recycled materials; can be recycled in turn; doesn’t affect the quality of wine; and is good for up to 24 months’ storage.
He says: “To put it crudely, I see the situation as very serious: we need to get serious about getting rid of glass quickly as it is literally killing our vineyards, and we need to be the first ones to take a stand against it as nobody else is going to. There is a lot of money in lobbying against plastic, but nobody ever talks about the effects of glass. Neither is perfect, but glass is not a magic solution to the problem and is actually making things worse.”
Cramele Recas only uses rPET that meets stringent EU safety requirements and has done its own tests to ensure the packs do not have any ill effects on the wine. “We are working with the plastic suppliers to develop new and innovative materials, shapes and colours for the packaging,” Cox adds.
“We are working on a low-nylon material which is easier to recycle and we are also looking at biodegradable plastics, which we hope to roll out in the next 18 months.”
Jo Ruxton is the film maker behind A Plastic Ocean, an award winning documentary which revealed the horrifying scale of plastic pollution in the world’s seas to a huge audience for the first time in 2016, and now runs conservation charity Ocean Generation.
She argues that marketing recycled plastic packs gives consumers the mistaken impression that all plastics can be recycled again and again, encouraging them to continue using and disposing of packs rather than trying to avoid or reuse them.
“It’s not the plastic itself that is the problem, it is telling people that it’s disposable,” she says. “Recycled plastic is still a problem in the environment – it can do just as much damage as virgin plastic does and it isn’t got rid of any more easily.”
Sea Change Wine, part of 10 International, uses lighter-weight glass bottles, renewable plant-based closures – such as natural cork – and has removed plastics from its labels, using paper made from sustainable forests and grape waste instead. For every bottle sold it contributes €0.25 to charities including Ocean Generation.
Founder and director Toby Hancock tells DR: “Plastic and PET can be devastating to our environment, as we have seen with our links with marine conservation.
“While being lighter weight has its advantages from a carbon footprint point of view, we believe that, as a society, we need to drastically reduce and remove plastics from our lifestyles.
“Recycling plastics and PET is not a solution, and creating a circular model has been well proven to be a myth. More worrying is the recent research papers that shed more light on chemicals in PET, and especially recycled PET, leaching into the product. As more research is published the picture only gets worse.”
The Wine Society has been exploring alternative wine packs for several years in a bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Head of sustainability Simon Mason says: “It’s really important to recognise that no single packaging format offers a complete solution at this stage.”
RPET performed well against glass and other formats in its research, in spite of other environmental trade-offs, and offered the chance to cut almost of a third of its greenhouse gas emissions from glass.
“Our research highlighted that the rPET bottle we included offered good closed-loop potential and is also highly likely to be recycled in practice – a significant consideration given the current state of recycling in the UK,” Mason says.
The overall conclusions of the research found that a portfolio approach would make most sense for wine packaging, with formats chosen depending on both wine and occasion.
“For us, this currently looks like a drive to reduce all of our glass bottle weights below 420g, recognising that for wines benefiting from maturation, glass is still the best option,” Mason adds.
The highly complex issue of plastic pollution and recycling is a rabbit hole of research you could lose yourself in. Retailers looking to offer customers more sustainable wine options will need to weigh up not just these tricky issues, but also changing public perceptions as the debate evolves.
What are the options for eco-conscious wine retailers?
1. Be a lightweight: Sea Change Wine was founded in response to the growing plastics crisis in the ocean. More than 96 billion pieces of plastic are thrown away in the UK alone each year, according to Greenpeace, and a significant amount of this ends up in our oceans, rivers and lakes. Sea Change has created lighter-weight bottles with no plastic wrap, natural cork and label paper made from wood from sustainable forests and partly with grape waste, creating a wine with 100% recyclable packaging. It has a range of wines including a Prosecco and an alcohol-free beverage, and for every bottle sold a donation is made to marine conservation charities.
2. Can it: Unlike plastic, aluminium can be recycled again and again, and it takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminium than to produce the primary material. Vinca Wine produces organic, vegan wines packaged in cans that are made from up to 73% recycled aluminium and which are 100% recyclable – and it carbon-offsets all its shipping.
3. Try Tetra Pak: Ehrmanns head of marketing Keith Lay says the company is looking to launch its Beefsteak brand in Tetra Pak and he’s keen to see other brands follow. According to Tetra Pak, nearly all local authorities accept Tetra Pak cartons for recycling – 97%, up from just 10% back in 2007 – and 66% collect them directly from the kerbside. A dedicated facility in Halifax has the capacity to recycle 40% of all cartons sold in the UK.