Bernard Grafé, the fourth-generation proprietor of the négociant-éleveur Grafé Lecocq, runs his family’s business using the same model on which it was founded in 1879. “We have always worked with producers in France to buy raw wines to age and bottle in the Belgian market. Ninety percent of our sales are in Belgium and all sales are within 200 kilometers. This enables a circular system of recollection and reuse. Now people think this system is revolutionary,” says Grafé, smiling in amusement.
Grafé is right to smile. The reuse system employed by his family, which has been fully functioning for over 100 years, is currently keeping his glass costs reasonable in a country that is experiencing glass shortages and price hikes due to the war in Ukraine. But even before that was an issue, Grafé’s family employed reuse because it has the lowest carbon footprint of any packaging option. “When you manufacture a glass bottle you need temperatures of 1,480 Celsius [2,700 Fahrenheit] for 24 hours, a bit less if it’s recycled material. We wash for 30 minutes at a maximum temperature of 80 Celsius [176 Fahrenheit]. I take into account that sometimes we need to buy new bottles, but even so our carbon footprint is 10 times lower than it would be,” says Grafé.
Comparing Grafé’s reuse system to other forms of packaging is revealing. In 2021, Alko and Systembolaget (the Finnish and Swedish retail monopolies), did life cycle analyses on alternative packaging to find the volume of carbon produced for each packaging option: PET (polyethylene terephthalate, commonly used in packaging) was found to have a 50 percent lower carbon footprint than a 540-gram single-use glass bottle; an aluminum can comes in at 66 percent lower; a bag-in-box at 86 percent lower; and Tetra Pak at 88 percent lower. Grafe’s system, at a 90 percent reduction, has the lowest carbon emissions and, while all of these options have a shelf life and produce waste, reused glass does not.
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As increasing numbers of people around the globe wake up to the realities of our changing climate and the effect of single-use packaging, notably heavy glass, why isn’t reuse more prevalent?
The Single-Use Economy
“When I was a child in Sweden, we had refillable wine bottles. Not in the Italian or French sense where you brought your bottles and refilled; instead we returned bottles to monopoly stores and they cleaned and refilled them like milk bottles,” says Erica Landin-Löfving, who previously worked for Systembolaget on global sustainability certification programs. “It wasn’t from an environmental perspective, it was just the system.” But then consumers began choosing unscuffed glass bottles off shelves whenever they were available, not realizing these were an indication of climate-smart packaging, putting producers who reused at a disadvantage. These days, Sweden has a 94 percent glass recycling rate but reuse has fallen out of favor.
“Before World War II, nearly 100 percent of beverages were in refillable containers,” says Michael Noel, the public affairs director of TOMRA, a reverse vending machine company that enables reuse and higher efficiency in recycling worldwide. “When we transitioned to a single-use economy, there was a cost to that efficiency; suddenly we had a litter problem and an emissions problem. While some refillable markets still exist, for the most part refillable programs fell apart. But now we see policy makers coming at it from the other side and setting reuse targets.”
In March, for example, the EU set a five percent target for wine bottle reuse by 2030, one of a number of moves to revisit and expand the reuse systems of the past.
Working With Retail to Reconstruct Reuse
With no government mandated systems in place, infrastructure for reuse is being rebuilt in a variety of ways. The washing is the simplest part. The most difficult part is the recollection.
One of the largest platforms for global reuse, Loop, launched out of a recycling company called TerraCycle in 2019. The company began with the premise that if drop-off wasn’t easy for consumers, the system wouldn’t work. So the platform prioritized partnering with large retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, and Walgreens. These retailers all agreed to enable recollection. “From a Loop standpoint we work with retailer partners to set up smart bins, reverse vending machines, or most of the time, we’re working with what we call low-tech bins. Sometimes we even work directly with the cashiers,” says Clemence Schmid, the general manager of Loop Global.
Once a retail partner signs on, Loop begins working with the brands the retailer sells to put products in reusable containers. “Loop is material agnostic. If you already have a special container, that’s fine. But we need to ensure that the container is durable enough. We stress test the container to confirm that it lasts at least 10 cycles; we do drop tests, then cleaning tests, so that it can be cleaned through our process. We have a catalog available that has recommended pre-approved containers, but as long as we can take a container through our current cleaning SOPs [standard of practices], we’ll work with a brand,” says Schmid. “When packaging is returned, we separate and sort by brand and SKU, then we store until we meet the minimum order quantity for a brand.”
Loop is currently working with over 100 Aeon Hypermarkets in Japan, over 60 Carrefour supermarkets in France, with Tesco in the U.K., and, in the U.S., with Walmart online and Giant in-store. In the U.K., Accolade Wines has partnered with Tesco and Loop to create a zero-waste circular economy for their wines. “There is no resistance to reuse by consumers,” says Schmid. “There’s just a lack of availability, ease, and understanding. The best practice is to remind people on the bottle where they bought the product—that’s where they’ll return it—and the amount of deposit.” Schmid says that the number one priority for opening new states and markets is a retail partner; without one, recollection is difficult.
The Challenge of Recollection in Reuse
The deposit that Schmid mentions features prominently in recollection rates in the U.S., where only 10 states have deposit refunds. Data from the Container Recycling Institute shows that there is a 52 percent higher recollection rate on glass packaging that has a deposit versus that which doesn’t. This was a major consideration when Caren McNamara, the founder of California’s Conscious Container, launched her platform to collect glass out of California’s existing infrastructure. She quickly found, however, that California processors (in this case recyclers) were required to crush bottles after recollection in order to avoid the possibility of deposits being collected a second time. McNamara worked with Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove to pass AB 962 in 2021, a bill that allowed refillables to pass through the state’s system without being crushed. “I could have gone outside the recycling system, but the recyclers are the existing infrastructure and redemption programs are the best way of getting source separated waste. I don’t want to have to own my own fleet of waste collection trucks,” says McNamara.
While Loop recollects from retail partners and Conscious Container recollects from current recycling systems, Los Angeles-based reuse platform OOM has decided on an altogether different method for recollection. “As well as sanitizing and cleaning for brands, we provide technical and digital recollection tools,” says Amy Lee, the cofounder of OOM. “On the consumer side, there’s an app for drop-off and we’re adding at home pickup soon. Consumers can see their overall impact. From a brand side, this is a great way to track how consumers are using this platform and how they can target incentives and rewards.” But, because OOM does not work within the current recycling infrastructure, this is outside of the U.S. deposit system. Instead, says Lee, “we work with our brand partners to help determine the best incentive structure for consumers.”
Perhaps the most comprehensive plan for recollection in the U.S. is being launched by Revino, an Oregon-based reuse platform that is in the final phases of its first-year producer contracts. The reason for contracts is that Revino will sell distinct, Oregon-produced, recycled glass directly to wineries. The company will then use both state systems and producer involvement to recollect their own bottles. The platform will partner with Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC) so that bottles sold through retailers can be returned to OBRC for a certain return value. “Oregon is unique, we have a robust population center and the only statewide refillable program in the U.S.,” says Revino cofounder Adam Rack. “It’s already used for beer.” In addition to their partnership with OBRC, the company will run a Revino-specific pickup route to collect their glass from winery tasting rooms. They are asking participating wineries to let all wine club members know that they can return empty glass when they pick up shipments or come to taste.
“There is no resistance to reuse by consumers. There’s just a lack of availability, ease, and understanding.” – Clemence Schmid, Loop Global
Reuse platforms outside of the U.S. do not have the same legislative challenges related to deposits. They do, however, still rely on partnerships to enable recollection. Grafé Lecocq faces almost no collection-related issues as retail partners and consumers are so familiar with the brand’s long-standing system. “Once a week we deliver wine all across Belgium to homes, restaurants, and shops,” says Grafé. “We pick up any of our bottles that have been returned, sort Bordeaux from Burgundy, and send the bottles 60 kilometers to Serge Cheveau to wash and return to us for refilling.”
For younger brands, like French négociant Oé, recollection is done in much the same way. “Our on-trade B2B partners (restaurant, caterers, distributors) are keen to take part as it’s already part of their day-to-day to put bottles back into recycling crates,” says Claire Auzanne, the export manager for Oé. “We also offer it to off-trade chains and our retail partner, Carrefour, has collection points inside its supermarkets.” The company has managed to convince 70 percent of their customers to take part in recollection. The bottles are then sent to, or picked up by, Uzaje and Ma Bouteille s’appelle Reviens for washing.
A new generation of products aims to shrink the carbon footprint of wine, spirits, and beer for a more sustainable future
A new generation of products aims to shrink the carbon footprint of wine, spirits, and beer for a more sustainable future
The Roadblock of Packaging Standardization
Despite investment and enthusiasm, reuse still faces major challenges. The fervor with which the wine industry has embraced differentiated packaging as a marketing tactic has made countrywide recollection systems nearly impossible and is why all of the different buildouts for recollection have taken place. In the ideal world that Conscious Container’s McNamara is lobbying for, she can pick up from any recycling center in California, sort bottles into a dozen SKUs, and sell the cleaned glass back to producers whose consumers needn’t change their recycling habits. They just put the glass in recycling bins—as they’ve always done. But that’s not the world we live in.
There are dozens of glass manufacturers who each carry hundreds of SKUs and the result is thousands of different bottle shapes, weights, and sizes. You can see it in any grocery store in the world. And even if all of these bottles were able to be recollected, the sorting would have to be perfect. “Every time you change a SKU, you have to change the tuning of a bottling line,” says McNamara. “If you look at where reuse has been successful around the world you see brand standard or industry standard bottles.”
In order to make her system work in the short term, McNamara has been salvaging whole palates of glass from recycling centers. “Right now our business model is primarily getting excess unused glass from recycling centers. Glass that has never been used,” says McNamara. “California wineries package three billion bottles annually. One to 1.5 percent of that is wastage because a company decides to change a mold or switch to a different color or discontinue a product. The wine industry always orders more glass than they need. Then they dump it. So in order to get the infrastructure rolling we find that glass, wash it, and resell it.” The wineries that purchase this glass are then set up for future cycles of return and reuse, but in order for McNamara’s plan to work long term and on a broader scale, glass needs to be standardized.
OOM confronts this issue directly on their website. Its blog reads: “it’s becoming apparent for reusable wine bottles to work at scale, changes need to be made industry-wide … Out of the thousands of bottles we’ve collected, we have hundreds of different bottle shapes and sizes.” The company is now offering to consult on wineries’ glass purchases in order to limit the number of SKUs they work with.
Reuse veteran Grafé says standardization is key to the system functioning. “We use one 750-milliliter Burgundy bottle for wine from the Loire, Burgundy, Rhône, and the Languedoc. We use a Bordeaux bottle for Bordeaux and some of the Languedoc. We need this to streamline operations. We can’t play on the marketing of the bottles. That’s the downside of this system.”
Shifting Producer and Consumer Priorities
For reuse to become prevalent, both wine producers and wine consumers need to change their package purchasing priority to value the environment over a unique aesthetic—recognizing that the shape or weight of a bottle doesn’t indicate wine quality.
Grafé is keen to point out that if a wine is good enough it doesn’t matter what bottle it comes in. In past decades, Grafé Lecocq partnered with Pétrus, Léoville Las Cases, and Haut-Bages Libéral. None of these estates became known because their bottles were distinctive or heavy; they became known because their wines are good.
The team at Revino sees collaboration with producers as key to success and acceptance of standardization. When Rack and cofounder Keenan O’Hern started the process, they worked with 90 producers to create a widely appealing, functional mold aiming for a large adoption rate at launch. “We’re not going to be able to convince the cautious producers or the producers who are concerned with marketing heavy 800-gram bottles,” says Rack. “What we have done is found the producers who have been looking for this solution and made sure they had input on our glass design.”
Conscious Container is appealing to a similar producer—one who is willing to put the environment first and to engage with their consumers to explain the upsides of reuse. “We’ve been certified by B Corp since January 2022 and our carbon footprint is super important to us,” says Jaime Araujo, the founder and vintner of Trois Noix Wine in Napa Valley. “As most people know, glass is the last tricky piece of the puzzle. We stopped using foils years ago, went to tree-free labels, and used shorter corks. While moving our wines into lighter glass has been helpful, when we heard there was an opportunity for reuse, it spoke to us.” Trois Noix became a pilot winery for Conscious Container and Araujo found the experience easy and the quality of the glass high. “But because it’s salvage glass, the bottle is different. If anyone notices, we use that as an opportunity to speak to how we’re working, our process, and how we’re trying to work with companies like Conscious Container.”
“For me it’s not about worrying about the impression glass gives—my wine doesn’t need to look impressive. I’m over that and the consumer will get over it too,” says Bart Hansen, the winemaker and owner of Sonoma Valley’s Dane Cellars, another client of Conscious Container.
In Napa Valley, Diana Snowden Seysses, the winemaker of family-owned Snowden Vineyards, launched Snowden ‘Cousins’ Merlot in reusable glass last year. When Snowden Seysses began thinking about reuse in the U.S. she worried about bottle standardization, widespread adoption, and recollection. But ultimately, she decided, “you have to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. In the end we have to do it. There’s no other option. We have to change.”
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Samantha Cole-Johnson is a Portland-based freelance wine writer, speaker, and educator. Her work has been featured in online and print publications, including JancisRobinson.com, GuildSomm, Wine & Spirits, and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. Sam holds the WSET Diploma and teaches WSET qualifications at Portland’s Wine and Spirit Archive.