In defence of glass bottles
Published:  27 August, 2008

Since the mid-18th century, glass packaging has been the first choice for wine producers across the world.

Elegant, endlessly recyclable and inert, glass offers a practical and poetic solution. What other packaging material can preserve a wine in the pristine state that the manufacturer intended, deliver a premium image to the consumer and allow the retailer to meet challenging environmental targets?

Recent media reports suggest that cracks have started to appear in the relationship. Bordeaux wine producer Castel recently threw down the gauntlet by announcing that if the glass bottle supply problems experienced in 2007 persist in 2008, it will consider moving to PET bottles - that is, if French consumers do not throw up their hands in horror.

Elsewhere, Wolf Blass launched the world's first full-size PET wine bottle in Canada, Arniston Bay of South Africa and Palandri of Australia collaborated on a foil and plastic wine container, and JMB Beverages launched an aluminium wine bottle.

So what's going on? Is the hegemony of glass in the wine sector about to be eroded? I don't believe it is - not for a moment. But that's not to say our industry can afford to be complacent.

To deal with the Castel story first off. It's true that some European wine manufacturers experienced bottle supply shortages this summer, but this shouldn't be interpreted as the sign of an imminent crisis. The problems arose from an unusual set of circumstances: an unseasonably early grape harvest at a time when some of the bigger continental bottling plants were undergoing refit or rebuild. The result was a flurry of hasty orders that could not be fulfilled within tight time frames.

Saint-Gobain, one of Castel's main bottle manufacturers, has since confirmed that these supply problems have been resolved. But the incident is a timely reminder of the importance of communication between wine producer and packer-filler, especially in a sector where bottling runs are often short, seasonal and irregular. It is not, however, an indication that things are about to go PET-shaped.

The glass industry does have some big battles ahead though . As has been widely reported, glass manufacturing costs are rising. The price of the gas needed to fire high-temperature furnaces has risen by around 55 per cent in the UK alone, and for some manufacturers general energy prices have risen by 300 per cent between 2003 and 2006. This has had a knock-on effect on some raw material prices - notably soda ash. While gas prices fell back in 2007, there has been huge volatility again over recent weeks in the UK. Wine producers, meanwhile, have continued to demand an attractively priced product. Profit margins are being squeezed until they hurt, and if the situation continues long-term, glass manufacturers will no longer be able to invest in the bottling facilities that the wine industry demands - and both sides will lose.

Another issue of major concern to our industry is the myth that glass is somehow less environmentally friendly than other materials. If this fallacy continues to gain credence, it could well see some retailers reaching for PET in a mistaken gesture of green-mindedness.

How has this confusion arisen? The EU's directive on packaging

and packaging waste requires retailers to meet some very demanding packaging reduction targets. But some retailers have interpreted this obligation as a simple weight-reduction exercise, with glass the villain of the piece.

This knee-jerk response fails to recognise the major environmental benefits that glass offers. Although heavy compared to other materials, it is actually the most sustainable form of packaging available. Over 50 per cent of the UK glass container waste stream is recycled. It is not down-cycled or shipped to far flung parts of the globe or deliberately incinerated.

In other European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany and Holland, glass recycling rates are as high as 90 per cent. And where virgin raw materials do need to be used, they are cheap and plentiful. Supplies of sandstone will last for thousands of years, unlike the basic raw material used to produce most other forms of packaging.

If we are to have a debate where competing materials are to be judged on their environmental impact, then it is vital that we take a holistic view. Once that's done, I'm confident that glass will remain the first choice for wine.