Sustainable Wine & Spirits Packaging

We’d design every package for maximum sustainability if it didn’t increase cost of goods and/or reduce the quality perception of a brand. While claims of sustainability can add perceived value for consumers, the premium visual and tactile cues they want depend on some less-than-environmentally-friendly materials.

Metallic foil, for instance, is perceived as an indicator of quality, but is toxic. The application of metallics renders a label unrecyclable due to heavy metals used in the material.

It’s up to us branding professionals to seek the most sustainable options available while also achieving our marketing goals. Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce the carbon footprint of, and waste created by, packaging. We believe it’s better to take small steps now than to wait for perfect solutions.

Here’s a look at environmentally conscious options in glass, labels and closures as well as ideas for reducing the waste created in packaging production.

Glass Bottles

Glass is, of course, recycled and recyclable and that’s a good thing. Recycling reduces landfill, optimizes raw materials and reduces the energy used to manufacture bottles. Glass also represents a huge percentage of our industry’s carbon footprint.

The simplest step we can take to reduce the environmental impact of our glass container use is to choose lighter weight bottles.

The current OI wine glass catalog shows burgundy bottles weighing as little as 11.6 oz. to more than 24 oz. Choosing lightweight glass can have a substantial positive impact on the environment. According to Wine Business Monthly, “A 14-oz. bottle, when compared with a 16-oz. bottle, would save the equivalent of 71 metric tons of CO2 emissions, based on an annual production of a million bottles. That is the equivalent of taking 11 cars off the road or having 3,248 trees available to absorb other CO2 in the atmosphere.” Additionally, lightweight bottles cost less to ship and make cases easier to lift. This can save wineries money.

The downside? Consumers associate heavier bottles with higher quality products. These bottles feel more substantial when lifted, and deeper punts and heavier bottoms on bottles look more elegant. It will take time to change consumer’s perceptions. If we put our heads together, though, I’m sure we can come up with creative ways to increase the quality cues on labels to compensate for lighter glass.

Labels

Pressure sensitive wine and spirits labels have a number of components to consider when seeking to optimize sustainability: the paper stock, liner material (or backing), inks and other processes applied to the paper during printing.

Paper Stocks

Recycled label papers are widely available. Most of the application and performance issues bottlers encountered with earlier recycled label papers have been addressed, and we can now safely specify high quality papers with between 30-100% post consumer waste content. 100% PCW stocks do cost more, although the cost difference is narrowing as the recycled papers are being used more. The only other trade-offs we’ve found when specifying high recycled content label stocks are a creamier paper color and occasional small random flecks due to the recycled fiber content.

Tree-free stock is also available, made from alternative materials including bamboo, sugar cane, cotton and even calcium carbonate. Dennis Patterson of Tapp Label cautions that papers made with alternative fibers can present challenges such as stretching on press, making tight registration difficult.

A number of our clients are now using FSC-certified paper stocks, and noting the FSC certification on their back labels. The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent non-profit organization focused on forest preservation. Papers that are FSC certified must come from sustainably managed forests verified by third-party certifiers, and then follow a strict chain of custody throughout the paper manufacturing and printing process. Collotype Label and Tapp Label both have FSC certified facilities, giving their customers the option of specifying FSC certified stock and using the symbol on their packages.

Liners

Pressure sensitive labels are delivered to the bottling facility on a backing material called a liner, allowing the automated labeling equipment to efficiently apply the labels. Liners represent an enormous part of waste in the label process. There are several common liner materials, and only one is recyclable: PET.

Some printers recycle the liner wasted generated in the printing process. Wineries can also recycle PET liners after label application. According to Dave Busé of Collotype Label, few wineries produce enough liner material to make it economically feasible to collect, bail and ship the material to recycling facilities on an individual basis. In order to make recycling cost effective, says Dave, the industry must work together to develop a system for collecting and recycling PET liner from multiple facilities on a regular basis. Collotype has been working to coordinate such a project, but interest was higher prior to the great recession. To my mind, this is a clear opportunity for our industry to make strides toward sustainability.

Printing

There are two environmental considerations in label printing: 1) the materials in the final label, and 2) the waste generated in the printing process – both in volume and impact of the waste type.

As mentioned earlier, metallics are bad news for our planet. But what about all that material wasted at the printer while we finesse color prior to the production run? We can significantly reduce that waste by using clear specifications and good communication with our printers to speed the approval process on press. The faster we get to an approved label at the press check, the less material is thrown out. This is one simple goal we are going to focus on as a packaging agency.

Closures

The debate over natural cork vs. synthetic cork vs. screw caps vs. capsules is complex. Considerations include product preservation, ease of opening and quality perception.

From an environmental perspective, aluminum screw caps are highly recyclable, and made from recycled material. That makes them an eco-friendly choice. Consumers are more receptive to screw caps than they were 15 years ago, with broad acceptance in the lower to middle price ranges.

There is also an argument to be made for cork. To quote a 2011 article in SFGate, “Cork is naturally renewable, and historically, cork growing is a low-impact process, which doesn’t even require trees to be cut down,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Cork is harvested from trees in a way which keeps the tree alive to grow more cork, which is harvested again some years later.” Indeed, the World Wildlife Fund points to cork production as a means “to preserve the precious and beautiful woodlands that have uniquely clustered in the western Mediterranean for millennia.”

Let’s Move Towards Better

As branding professionals, we have the opportunity to specify greener materials. In specifying materials we must consider environmental impact alongside consumer perception and costs. Hopefully, this information and that in the links below help us find green solutions that meet our marketing goals.

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Infusions

For more information on FSC certified papers, greener closures and recycling packaging materials, see these resources.

This playful article in SFGate reviews the pros and cons of various closures.

Consider promoting consumer education program about packaging recycling. Corks are a place to start. 

Learn about FSC Certified paper and printing here. 

For more on reducing our carbon footprint with lighter weight glass, take a look at this in-depth Wine Business Monthly article.

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