Reuse of wine bottle systems: an essential undertaking

Last autumn alarm bells started to ring in the wine sector. Various wineries noticed that they were facing problems in glass bottle supplies, which could have an impact on prices and threatened the volume of sales. News about delays in the supply of raw materials were not exclusive to the wine sector, it also led to production stoppages or reductions in other sectors, such as the automobile industry. At the same time, the rise in the price of energy also resulted in power cuts in China and factory closures in the United States.

An economic model on shaky ground

Analysts have agreed in pointing out the easing or lifting of restrictions caused by the pandemic as one of the major causes of this crisis. But all this is a sample of what could happen in the next few years if the current production and consumption model doesn’t change. A productivist model that makes an intensive and inefficient use of resources, extracting them to turn them into waste, even with regards to non-renewable resources. But now we know that it is a model that is on shaky ground, as it is based on the false illusion of a planet with infinite resources and the pipe dream of continuous growth.

The manifestations of the ecological crisis have shown that this annihilating relationship with our natural environment must be overcome. We need a new approach towards the use of resources to be able to meet the needs of the world’s population without compromising the survival of future generations. For this reason, we also need to overcome the production-centric economic analysis models, based on indicators such as the GDP. These are obsolete frameworks that provide us with no information on the degree of satisfaction of human needs or the planet’s natural limits.

The balance between satisfying needs and the ecological limits

In this regard, the proposal from the economist, Kate Raworth has created quite a buzz. This Oxford and Cambridge professor poses an economic analysis model that aims to find the balance between meeting essential human needs and the planet’s ecological limits. Raworth represents her theory in the shape of a doughnut that connects these two dimensions together: in the centre, the basic needs that have to be covered; and in the outer ring, the natural limits that shouldn’t be exceeded.

In this way, to calibrate the state of an economy’s health, instead of looking at the evolution of the GDP (which tells us little about the physical and mental well-being of people and the pressure exerted on the planet), what needs to be analysed is to what extent is the centre section’s needs are being covered (the needs of the population) and whether the outer ring (the natural limits) is being exceeded.

Thus, today’s challenge is to rethink production and consumption models which move between these two variables. The ecological crisis is starting to put the current economic system with its back against the wall and it is necessary to maintain a proactive attitude in the search for solutions.

Reducing the carbon footprint of the wine sector

This is what Rezero and inèdit did with reWINE in the wine sector, one of the sectors most affected by the effects of the climate emergency, since the vines and the quality of the wine are highly dependent on the weather conditions. We have spent 4 years researching to propose a viable proposal to reduce the ecological footprint of the wine sector by rethinking the packaging system.

In the wine industry, disposable glass is widely used for bottling. Being an inert material, glass is ideal for contact with food and beverage products. It also offers other advantages, such as its high recyclability, its raw materials are not problematic and that it is non-toxic.

However, according to a recent study on the life cycle assessment of different packaging materials, when glass containers are for one single use, they have the greatest environmental impacts compared to other packaging materials (e.g., PET, aluminium and drink cartons). This is because regardless of the amount of raw materials that are recycled, glass production requires large amounts of energy.

In contrast, when glass is reused, from an environmental perspective, there are only benefits to be gained. Moreover, if it costs so much to make and the bottles can be reused, why do we crush them after each use? This absurdity is even more serious when the recycling plants are at great distances from the points of consumption, as is the case in the Balearic Islands.

For all these reasons, the reWINE strategy has opted for the implementation of a system for the reuse of glass bottles. We conducted a pilot test with the collaboration of 7 wineries, 2 distributors, 54 restaurants, 32 shops, 3 supermarket chains and 3 waste recycling centres. The main conclusion of the study is that by recovering the bottles and washing them to give them up to eight uses, the sector’s carbon footprint could be reduced by up to 28%. In other words, for every eight uses that we give to one bottle we avoid the emissions of producing a new one.

The challenge of the transition

To achieve this, it is necessary to create reuse networks and invest in decentralised washing plants to enable the reduction of emissions associated with transport.

Reusing wine bottles can be of great significance for the wine-growing areas organised in the Designation of Origin (DO) in which production, sale and consumption is made on a local or regional scale, for example of distances of between 100-120 km from the wine production point and the point of consumption. In contrast, it will be unfeasible for exported wine and more complex and open reuse networks would have to be considered in this case.

This transition to reusable bottling in the wine sector will be progressive and diverse. Large wineries will be able to internalise bottle washing plants if this is more competitive for them with regards costs. In contrast, small wineries may need to rely on external washing plants managed by third parties.

However the transition to reusing wine bottles goes, without a doubt it will be necessary to overcome certain obstacles, such as the use of labels adhered with non-water-soluble glue which is generally used in the sector, the non-standardisation of bottles, an option that may not be very popular with many wineries, the need to achieve a volume of returned bottles that enables the amortisation of internal washing plants and ensure the economic viability of external ones, etc.

The need for investment

The commitment to reusing wine bottles requires some years of investment in order to gain volume and overcome the low economic profitability of projects with a very segmented market share. In Catalonia there is only one active bottle washing plant, and currently it only washes pre-consumption bottles. As for the Balearic Islands, the existing washing plants are not prepared to take on the volume and types of bottles used by the islands’ wineries.

Private initiative to encourage more plants to emerge will be difficult without a favourable legislative framework for reuse. There is also a need for financial support that allows time to encourage reuse, including more wineries, distributor companies and individual consumers. Only then can the risk of mortality be avoided in the wine bottle washing plant business projects. What has been named a public-private collaboration has an opportunity in the field of reuse. It would be desirable for administrations and businesses interested in taking up this opportunity to put it into practice as soon as possible.

Regulatory opportunity

reWINE’s conclusions have been on the table for over a year. Some administrations have since shown interest in working in this direction. The Balearic Islands committed to the reuse of beverage packaging in its Waste Law (approved in 2019 and a pioneer in Europe), setting out specific objectives and they are studying the mechanisms to ensure there are washing and distribution networks for reusable containers.

Work must be continued to ensure there are regulations that accelerate the implementation process for reuse systems. In this regard, it is important that the opportunities offered by the future state Waste Law (now in the Senate) and the long-awaited Catalan Waste Law (still in its draft phase) do not escape. Quantitative targets for reuse must be set, the mechanisms for achieving them must be established and the funding needed to sustain a transformation of that magnitude must be ensured. We hope that political representatives are conscious of the importance of contributing to the sustainability of this strategic economic sector.