Wine + Sustainability with Elizabeth: Volume 6

Over the past few decades, we have seen the tides begin to change across many industries worldwide, as we have started to better understand the effect humans have on our planet. This first came about in the middle of the last century through the works and writings of Aldo Leopard, Garret Hardin, and Rachel Carson about stewardship. Environmental stewardship can be defined as “The responsible use (including conservation) of natural resources in a way that takes full and valanced account of the interests of society, future generations, and other species, as well as of private needs, and accepts significant answerability to society.” It is from this idea of stewardship that sustainability was born.

In its simplest form, as we have touched on before, sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And all across the wine industry, we see many forms of sustainability being implemented and improved on. Programs and certifications have emerged to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint – reducing chemical use and carbon emissions, energy and water conservation, societal needs, packaging, recycling and waste management.

It may surprise you to hear this, but one of the fastest growing segments in wine since 2016, is a little thing we call canned wine. No longer a trend, but its own $14-million category, that has seen triple-digit growth year after year since it was introduced. This is all because the way we drink wine is changing. When we think of the places that we want to drink, these places typically do not allow glass packaging – beaches, poolside, parks. Not only that, we are drinking better and less of it. Grabbing for that 750ml bottle is not what everyone is looking for. Consumers are seeking smaller or single-serve options. For these consumers, canned wine also checks off that sustainability box. Cans are typically made from recycled aluminum, can be re-recycled, are lighter to ship and easier to recycle.

So is canned wine more sustainable than bottled wine? That is still up for much debate, as the sustainability of a vineyard as a whole extends far back to the fields, before any packaging is considered. Let’s go back to the trend that people are consuming less. In theory, consumers are not reaching for that 750ml bottle, but instead a single serve offering of wine. But does that actually equate to drinking less with single serving canned options vs a traditional wine bottle with 5 servings? Also, debatable.

I find myself in somewhat of a standstill here, as canned wine makers are boasting the sustainable benefits of this new type of packaging, glass is also infinitely recyclable.

For every ton of glass recycled, more than a ton of natural resources are saved, including 1,300 pounds of sand, 410 pounds of soda ash, 380 pounds of limestone and 160 pounds of feldspar, according to Keep America Beautiful.

“Glass recycling has a direct impact on climate change. By using recycled glass in container glass manufacturing and fiberglass insulation, [carbon dioxide] emissions are reduced and energy savings are realized. This is because recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than virgin materials. Further, if recycled glass is used in place of virgin materials, it is conserving natural resources. Although glass is inert, it does not belong in landfills. Glass never fully degrades. It never wears out and can be re-used endlessly.”

But there is one other glaring issue that has been brought up with this can vs glass sustainability debate. Is my glass wine bottle actually being recycled? The short answer, probably not.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that out of the 3 million tons of glass containers that were generated, only 33.2% was recycled, while 53.6% ends up in a landfill. Overall, glass makes up 10% of what ends up in a landfill.

How can this be?

It has been noted that the process for recycling glass is much more complicated than that of aluminum. Glass needs to be separated by color. And not every city, county and state have the same glass recycling requirements, so it is often confusing for the end user. Furthermore, when consumers are unsure about what can actually be recycled, recyclables are being contaminated, rendering them in the end, as something that cannot be recycled. With more trash being sorted at recycling facilities, it is becoming less economically viable for a municipality to continue a recycling program. Glass ultimately makes up about 17 percent of Baltimore’s recycling tonnage, but it’s essentially worthless. In Baltimore, the glass recycling stream used to generate $50 per ton, now costs it that much to deal with.

Our trash has lost its value. Baltimore city’s recycling was valued at $112 a ton seven years ago, but that value fell this year to $30, according to city officials.

Is there anything we can do? Even though these numbers are grim, we shouldn’t be discouraged. Knowing that the system isn’t working can fuel the necessary changes we need to reverse the number of glass bottles that are ending up in landfills. A collective and conscious effort to make sure more glass ends up in the proper place, so it can be reused. Educate yourself on your city’s glass recycling procedures (Baltimore Recycling Services). Find out where glass can be properly recycled (MD Glass Recycling Directory). Talk with your local representative about supporting a bottle deposit (something that has been rejected in Baltimore for almost a decade now) or moving away from a single stream program to something that is more viable. Or simply upcycling glass bottles for home, craft and art projects.