Solid Waste & Recycling

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Days of Wine and Roses

I was pleased to receive the report Refillable Wine Bottles in Ontario: Cases for Reuse from Toronto, Ontario-based Environmental Defence in May of this year. The report neatly summarizes the arguments in favor of reusing wine bottles rather...


I was pleased to receive the report Refillable Wine Bottles in Ontario: Cases for Reuse from Toronto, Ontario-based Environmental Defence in May of this year. The report neatly summarizes the arguments in favor of reusing wine bottles rather than collecting them simply for smashing up and recycling.

“Approximately 36 million bottles of Ontario wine are consumed in this province each year,” the report states. “87 per cent of those bottles, over 30 million of them, are now returned for recycling thanks to the ODRP. None of these bottles are reused, but almost all of them could be.”

Readers outside the province need to know that until recently wine and liquor bottles were collected in Ontario via municipal curbside recycling programs. The “Bag it Back” program put these containers on deposit on February 5, 2007, creating a financial incentive to divert the bottles from disposal and keep them out of single-stream recycling plants where they may further contaminate other recyclables with shards of broken glass.

Oddly, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) doesn’t receive the bottles, despite the crown corporation being the purchase point for most of them. Instead, The Beer Store (“TBS” – a private company) secured the contract to have its stores act as depots (despite that it only sells beer). TBS bid on the work because it saw value in luring consumers to its stores where they may happen to buy beer (and thus recapture some of the beer sales lost to the LCBO in recent years). Collecting these containers is also consistent with TBS leadership position in the packaging realm. About 95 per cent of beer sold in glass bottles in Ontario is recaptured for refilling, with the average container making 15 trips before being sent for recycling. This reduces waste while creating jobs.

According to the Environmental Defence report, “At the national level, TBS estimates that its refillable program has substituted 3.25 billion containers with 4,500 more jobs.”

If it has not already, TBS should start making plans to refill the wine bottles it currently collects; a compelling business case for doing so is laid out in the Environmental Defence report. The LCBO is the biggest single purchaser of alcohol beverages in the world, and has market clout. Ontario also has a fast-growing wine industry with well established brands hailing from the famous Niagara grape growing area, and many new producers opening up in Prince Edward County (near Belleville).

Most Ontario wineries today sell their products in single-use bottles made by OI in Brampton, plus some imported from overseas. Producers could lower their carbon emissions and costs by sourcing bottles locally from bottle washing plants fed by the huge volume of intact bottles collected under deposit by TBS. Most of the carbon footprint of a winery comes from its bottles, and rinsing a wine bottle (even many times) requires only five per cent of the energy required to manufacture a new bottle.

Ideally, the Ontario wine industry would adopt a standardized wine bottle for most of its products (much as the provinces brewers have). It’s worth noting that much of the world’s wine is sold in somewhat standardized bottles anyway, to denote the different kinds of grape (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.) and certainly the volume of bottles the LCBO imports from around the world dwarves local production, so there should be an abundance of suitable containers.

Refilling glass wine bottles would lower CO2 emissions and reduce water usage (even with rinsing factored in). And unlike some environmental benefits that cost more, wine bottle refilling saves money.

Environmental Defence quotes Chris Wyse, President of B.C.’s Burrowing Owl winery, saying the transportation and sanitization of refillables costs $0.20 per bottle.

“In comparison, an inexpensive single-use bottle costs approximately $0.50. Refillable bottles would also be exempt from the 9 cent non-refillable levy, currently applied to all wine bottles, which would also help keep costs down,” Wyse states.

A refillable bottle carries a purchase price (per trip) of five cents, plus 10 cents for sorting and another 20 cents for washing and transportation, for a total of $0.35. This is 40 per cent less than a single-use bottle: 50 cent purchase price plus the non-refillable levy of nine cents, totaling $0.59.

The report refers to positive outcomes from programs in California, Newfoundland, B.C. and Hungary. Strikingly, these programs lack the key advantage in Ontario: the collection of wine bottles under deposit by a centralized organization with extensive experience handling glass bottles, rinsing and refilling them.

With the collection under deposit in place and a market of eager local wine producers waiting, it’s hard to imagine it will take long for the TBS or some entrepreneur to make large-scale wine bottle refilling a reality in Ontario, and eventually perhaps expand it across the whole nation. It seems a matter now of when, not if.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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