In support of Plastic Free July

In support of Plastic Free July

Environmental | 01 March, 2022

It’s Plastic Free July and we thought it would be a great time to share with you some of the learnings of WSTA’s environmental guru Freddie Joosten. 

Since taking the lead on sustainability and the environment for the WSTA Freddie has immersed himself in the latest global research into eco-friendly packaging to find examples of best practice. 

Here he tackles the burning question – what material is the most sustainable? 

Its Plastic Free July and a good opportunity to consider what single use plastics we should stop using. For conscientious consumers and brand owners its can be difficult to know what packaging is the most sustainable, and the answer is often over simplified. Here is a simple comparison looking at popular materials used in wine and spirit bottles – plastic, metal, glass and compostable innovations – and some of the factors to consider. 

Plastic Free July is an annual consumer campaign aimed at reducing plastic pollution by asking pledges to refuse single use plastics in July. The website is loaded with ideas for consumers and businesses on how to reduce single plastic use.   It’s an excellent initiative and a timely prompt to make us all stop and think about the way we use plastic and how best we can reduce, re-use and recycle not just plastic but all packaging.  But it’s also important we don’t get too polarised in our outlook.  Plastic is widely used, it is cheap to produce, easy to shape and ship and when collected is easily recycled, bottle and lid all-in-one. For example, Garcon Wines created a wine bottle made from 100% recycled PET plastic, it stacks tightly and has a very low carbon footprint, it can even be posted through a letterbox! But it is also true that there is increasing public concern about plastic waste in our rivers and seas and the unknown effect of micro-plastic pollution.   

When it comes to packaging, research highlights the confusion about the impact that different materials have on the environment, with 64% of respondents thinking cans are more eco-friendly than plastic bottles. But this may not be true, particularly when taking into account  how the material is mined (from bauxite) and the energy and chemicals that the production process uses. Furthermore, metal cans have a plastic or epoxy liner to prevent the metal reacting with its contents, as this video demonstrates. The liner gets burnt off when the cans are recycled.  

Biodegradable plastic cartons are a welcome innovation, they are lighter and can be stored tightly – saving on transport and resulting vehicle emissions.  However, like plastic and metal, they may not have the necessary properties to contain wines or spirits for a significant length of time, their multi-layered structure means they can be difficult to recycle, and, despite their name, they can’t be left to disintegrate harmlessly. 

Glass bottles have been used by the wine and spirit industry for centuries.  Glass is inert, chemically inactive, and it is made from naturally abundant materials. It is also 100% recyclable without the loss of quality experienced with polymers, and unlike other options, it is impermeable so can safely store wines and spirits for many years. But glass is the heaviest option and the most energy intensive to produce.  Over recent years companies have invested heavily in developing lighter weight glass bottles and shipping in bulk which both make significant reductions to their carbon footprint, particularly wine shipped from the southern hemisphere or US.  Businesses continue to look for ways to further reduce their carbon footprint with producers like Encirc 360 developing carbon free fuels, creating glass using 100% recycled content, and pushing to improve recycling and manufacture with Glass Futures 

What is clear though is that the costs of collecting and recycling wate packaging will increasingly have to be fully funded by those that produce or import the packaging material.  This is one of the central features of the Government’s package of measures in its Circular Economy proposals and within that the introduction of a Deposit and Return Scheme (DRS) for drinks containers and Extended Producer Responsibility for all other packaging.   

From 2024, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), will be introduced by the UK government. This system will place the financial cost of managing products once they reach end of life on producers. Via a modulated fee structure, EPR will encourage the circular economy including upcycling, reduce waste and littering, and improve the recyclability of packaging. The scheme will also introduce labels to help inform consumers about the packaging they use. EPR is crucial as producers will be strongly incentivised to use the most sustainable packaging materials, using independent research data, across their supply chains including consumer packaging. 

DRS, a type of EPR, will also be introduced, funded by producers, the value of collected materials and unredeemed deposits, it will require consumers to ensure their empty bottles are recycled by returning them to a retailer to redeem a deposit (say 20p per bottle). The scheme will mean consumers no longer recycle most of their bottles at home and there are questions being asked about the need for DRS, when it may cause Covid transmission, be socially inequitable, very costly, and while Wales already achieves some of the highest collection and recycling rates in the world – without DRS. However, the Scottish Government have already introduced the policy and the UK looks set to follow by 2024. 

We are beginning to see a greater variety of packaging options for wines and spirits. Bottles are being developed that are, fully upcycled, and using 100% recycled materials. ‘Bio-based’ options, converting cellulose fibers, are also being developed that could one day could be used in bottling. Providing the right recycling options are in place, glass, metal, or plastic will continue to be used but, alongside helpful policy and consumer demand, we can expect more innovation and better outcomes for our environment.   


Consumer perceptions 

Plastic in aluminium cans video 

Garcon Wines 

FEVE Why choose glass?  

Glass Futures 

Wales is world leader for recycling waste 

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