Three reasons why canned wine is a more sustainable wine packaging option

To state the obvious, climate change is not going to solve itself. Singular behavioural changes are insufficient: the pandemic, probably the most significant behavioral change in a century hasn’t put us on track to a greener future (look at how emissions fell by less than expected as a result of the pandemic - here). The hard truth is, it is only through a combination of small individual actions and systemic change that we can prevent a dangerously warming planet.

Can changing how you drink wine be one of those small, but important changes? Yes, and it’s more significant than you think. In fact it’s equivalent to taking 350,000 conventionally fuelled cars off the road in the UK.

Glass bottles are seen as a sustainable option for packaging. You separate them from the rest of your rubbish so that they are correctly recycled. For most of us, that is the extent of our consideration of sustainability in wine packaging and it is job done. However, it is everything before and after that point that means there are more sustainable packaging options for wine which can unlock carbon savings equivalent to 350,000 cars off the road in the UK.

That’s not to say we should stop using glass for all wine tomorrow. Glass will remain the material of choice for fine wines. The completely inert nature of glass means that is necessarily the case; you need to be sure that the packaging material will not change the wine before laying it down for decades. That is fine and right. Individual actions will never catch on if there is a significant downside, like finding your Chateau Lafite Rothschild doesn’t do well in a can over 50 years (it won’t..). However, for most wine consumed in the UK, glass is not a necessity, with estimates suggesting 80-90% of bottles are consumed within 24 hours and 90-95% within a week. 

It is here, the every day wines, that alternative packaging can make a real difference - it’s how most wine is drunk, and therefore the potential benefits of this change are huge. Here’s how:

  1. Transport

    Audits by the California Wine Institute, Jackson Family Wines and the Australian Wine Research Institute found that the transportation of glass bottles was one of the major components of wine’s carbon footprint (16% of total emissions from wine).

    The shape of a wine bottle is ill-suited to today’s need for global shipping. The narrow neck, in particular, is very space inefficient. By comparison, a container of cans will hold twice the volume of wine as bottles. Taking into account the difference in weight when it comes to end-customer delivery, this is a significant carbon saving. The benefits of space efficient packaging also extend to storage in fridges (and the quicker chill time of cans).

    Buying local when it comes to wine also does less than expected to reduce environmental impact - wine does not need to arrive in a hurry, which opens the possibility of shipping by sea tanker in bulk (effectively a big wine-bag within a shipping container). This is even more effective than shipping in cans; a bulk container will hold 2.5x the volume of wine compared to bottles.

    However, the total volumes required to fill a container mean this is not always feasible for smaller producers. In the UK, you can tell if a wine was shipped in bulk rather than as bottles, because there will be a code preceded by a ‘W’ on the back label).

    TLDR: Bulk (2.5x better than bottles) > Cans (2x better than bottles) > Bottles

  2. Recycling

    Most people believe that glass is easily and widely recycled. It’s straightforward, so all glass is recycled right? Wrong. The FEVE (European Container Glass Federation) quote an ‘average glass collection for recycling rate’ of 76%. As Jancis Robinson points out, that is carefully worded sentence; it does not say that 76% of all glass is recycled, only that it is destined for a recycling facility. In the UK, only 68% of glass bottles are actually recycled. In comparison, cans hit 82% in 2020.

    Metal cans destined for recycling are preferable to glass too. In single stream recycling systems, broken glass can contaminate other recyclable items like cardboard. Glass also needs to be sorted by colour in order to produce high quality recycled items. Glass is difficult to sort, especially if broken down finely. If it is too difficult then it becomes expensive to process and the entire stream is sent to landfill. In the US, according to Recycle Across America, “More than 28 billion glass bottles and jars end up in landfills every year - that is the equivalent of filling up two Empire State Buildings every three weeks.” In contrast, cans are the easiest container to extract and separate from other recyclables, using magnets for steel and special currents for aluminium. This ensures all cans are recycled.

  3. Wastage

    For those of you who have met us at a festival or been lucky enough to join a tasting (if you haven’t look here), you’ll likely have heard the story about how Oli occasionally used to pour the odd leftover bottle of wine down the sink. This normally prompts a little smirk and then something along the lines of: “that never happens in my house” or “that’s sacrilege”, which we always enjoy and leads to some teasing of Oli.

    The statistics, though, suggest Oli cannot be the only person pouring wine down the sink. A 2017 study by Laithwaite’s found that UK households throw the equivalent of 624 million bottles of wine down the drain each year. Either we’ve only met the UK’s biggest boozers or, in actual fact, everyone is more like Oli than they care to admit.

    As mentioned in this blog, smaller format size, be it cans or bottles, are a useful way of reducing this wastage and your carbon footprint from wine that ends up down the drain. It’s also, of course, a way of avoiding a sore head in the morning.

We think these are three compelling reasons to reconsider glass bottles as the go-to wine vessel. But, sustainability is a process and while containers offer some easy wins, there is more to be done. There are two additional aspects which deserve some thought:

Emissions capture. As wine ferments, a large amount of CO2 is emitted. Fermentation gas is a particularly concentrated form of CO2, yet very little effort (if any) is made to prevent this being released directly into the atmosphere. This is not because the technology does not yet exist. It does. Fermentation CO2 can be captured, cleaned, and compressed for reuse or sale all very easily. This should be another area of development to reduce the carbon footprint of wine.

Production of packaging. The production of packaging, whether it is glass or aluminium, has room for improvement. Glass has already made significant steps towards more sustainable production: FEVE note that it is ~30% lighter, 70% less energy-intensive and emits 0% less CO2 than 50 years ago. This is a trajectory that needs to continue.

Similarly, the production of aluminium cans must be improved. Currently, making one aluminium can from raw materials uses the same amount of energy as recycling 20 (source). The success of aluminium recycling ensures that the current impact of aluminium cans is not as disastrous as it initially seems from this statistic. Energy requirements for aluminium have also improved, with efficiency of modern cells now nearer 95-96% rather than the 85% it was 50 years ago (source). However, clearly more innovation should go into reducing the energy requirements of new can production.

Sustainability in wine deserves more awareness and attention. While the magnitude of emissions from the production and transportation of wine should not be overstated - it is not as significant as industrial processes or electricity generation from coal, for example - it is important to recognise and act upon opportunities for improvement in industries with lower levels of emissions in addition to larger scale systemic change. Cans are a useful first step, but there is much more that can be done.

Three reasons why canned wine is a more sustainable wine packaging option