The question is perhaps one we should all be asking. In fact, some wineries across North America are successfully running refillable programs for their bottles. In addition, groups in British Columbia and Newfoundland plan to implement large-scale wine bottle refilling regimes. These programs recognize the environmental and economic benefit of refilling used beverage containers as opposed to merely recycling them and have developed innovative approaches for refilling success.
Naturally, reuse of glass bottles significantly offsets the extraction of virgin material for manufacturing; refillables are thus less energy intensive and generate less air and water pollution. According to the environmental not-for-profit organization INFORM, a 298 gram refillable glass bottle that makes eight roundtrips uses 78 per cent less glass than a 167 gram single-use container. If this same refillable bottle can be recovered and refilled 25 times, 93 per cent less glass is required.
In addition to lowering material consumption, refilling preserves the valuable “embodied energy” of a glass container (as producing new bottles is energy intensive).
Clarissa Morawski, Principal of CM Consulting, explains that the “cost of heating water does not even come close to the savings that are incurred from not having to manufacture new bottles.” Refillable bottles can be washed with less water due to technological advances. INFORM estimates that (including washing) refillable glass bottles use 47 per cent to 82 per cent less water than single-use containers.
There are many different ways that refillable wine bottle programs can be successful. From refilling bottles consumed in the winery restaurant, to bottle-your-own-wine services to a wine syndicate using economies of scale and banding together to save costs.
Wine Bottle Reuse Project, Newfoundland
A new and exciting project is taking place in St John’s, Newfoundland. Ever Green Environmental Corporation and the Industrial Outreach Group from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial University are researching a Wine Bottle Reuse Project that would enable the recovery and reuse of wine bottles from Newfoundland-based wineries. The group has developed (and intends to patent) a process to sanitize and remove labels from various types of containers in one integrated system.
Ed Drover, Ever Green Board Chair, explains that the “processes for recovery and reuse of glass alcohol containers are well defined and established, as is de-labeling for small volumes of containers. We now have a process that can address sanitization, de-labeling, recovery and reuse of hundreds of thousands of containers annually in a single integrated industrial process.”
During the washing process, a single wine bottle enters the washing machine where the labels are removed and the bottle is sanitized. The washer can sanitize between 2,000 and 3,000 wine bottles per day. If a winery wishes to wash more, they can simply purchase a second bottle washing machine.
“The bottle washing machine is designed to be small, and very cost effective to produce,” explains Mike Wadden, President of Ever Green. “It can go to where the bottles are, rather than trucking the bottles [to one centralized facility].”
This system is economically and environmentally beneficial because it avoids additional transportation of bottles. Testing of the prototype will be conducted in November.
The project is being funded by the Multi-Material Stewardship Board’s Solid Waste Management Innovation Fund and the Government of Canada’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). Ever Green will supply half a million refillable wine bottles that will result in annual reductions of approximately 2,500 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Charlene Johnson, Minister of Environmental Conservation, explains that “by enabling a continuous reuse of recoverable wine bottles, we will realize significant environmental savings in the manufacture, transportation and reprocessing of glass materials.”
In addition to the positive environmental impact, the Wine Bottle Reuse Project will create jobs for Newfoundlanders and benefit the economy.
Keith Ashfield, Minister of National Revenue, Minister of ACOA and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway, says, “This investment through ACOA is a win-win situation. It will help Ever Green Environmental achieve significant economic benefits, it will help create jobs, and it will benefit the environment through the recycling of old wine bottles.”
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, BC
The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in British Columbia is one example of a winery successfully using refillable glass wine bottles. Since 2002, its refillable program has been focused on capturing and refilling the bottles consumed in its restaurant, the Sonora Room. Empty bottles are transported to a local bottle washing company called Mission Bottlewashing Ltd. Clarissa Morawski, Principal of CM Consulting, explains that when wineries use a standardized refillable bottle they save on upfront purchasing costs.
“Because you’re reusing a bottle you don’t have to purchase it 10 to 15 times,” she says.
Chris Wyse, president of Burrowing Owl, estimates that the transportation and sanitization of the refillables costs $0.20 while new bottles typically range between $0.85 and $1.20.
Springhouse Cellar Winery, Oregon
A different sort of success has been achieved by Springhouse Cellar Winery in Hood River, Oregon. All of Springhouse Cellar’s products are available in refillable glass bottles for consumption on or off the winery property. There are over 1,000 refillable containers in circulation. When customers bring their empty refillable bottles, they can purchase a 1-litre refillable container at the same price as a single-use 750mL container. Not only does this provide an economic incentive to return the empties, but it also encourages customer loyalty.
Springhouse Cellar is dedicated to waste minimization. The company seals its bottles with swing-top closures instead of traditional corks. Winery owner James Matthisen estimates that half of the winery’s sales are from refillables. The winery believes that “in the wine business the simplest thing we can do is use fewer resources, ship less wine, and sell more wine locally.”
L’entrepôt du Vin en Vrac, Quebec
Quebec’s L’entrepôt du Vin en Vrac sells wine from wineries in Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa, Spain and the United States. This innovative program allows consumers to bottle and purchase bulk wine using self-serve refill counters. Customers simply bring their clean used wine bottles, then rinse, fill, seal and label their bottles using the equipment provided. All wines are also available through the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ). Customers save between 15 and 40 per cent when choosing Vin en Vrac’s refillable program instead of purchasing from the SAQ. Since Vin en Vrac customers own the wine bottles they refill, the program does not require the infrastructure for recapturing, sorting, washing and transporting bottles.
The Okanagan Purchasing Group, BC
In 2009, ten wineries and winemakers in the southern Okanagan Valley joined forces to create a steering committee to examine the possibility of implementing a reusable wine bottle system. In July 2010, the “Okanagan Purchasing Group” was formed by 20 shareholders comprised of independent winery owners and wine consultants. The group will act as a central purchasing agent for winery equipment and supplies. The Okanagan Purchasing Group produces 150,000 cases of wine annually.
Michael Bartier, a winemaker from Road 13 Vineyards, explains that this is still a relatively small amount of wine when compared t
o global wine production. This centralized purchasing company will allow the shareholders to obtain bulk rate pricing from suppliers for winery equipment and supplies. Moreover, the formation of this company represents the first step towards developing a refillable system.
A preliminary economic study for the Okanagan Purchasing Group has found that refillables could save wineries money. Dr. Ian Stuart, a Professor of Operations Management in the Faculty of Management at the University of British Columbia, estimates that with 840,000 bottles flowing through a new refillable system annually, wineries can expect to save $0.46 per refilled bottle.
In addition to the economic benefits, Stuart has found there are significant environmental benefits. He explains that currently wine bottles in BC get crushed and used in landfills.
“Other wine bottles,” Stuart says, “get shipped down to glass manufacturers where they get crushed further and made into new bottles, meaning there’s still a lot of energy being consumed throughout that recycling process.”
Three factors make refilling wine potentially successful for the Okanagan Purchasing Group. First, the local market represents a large percentage of the winery sales. Second, there’s a glass washing facility in close proximity to the region. As a result, transporting bottles back for washing and refilling is economically feasible. Third, British Columbians have experience returning containers because there is an established system to return bottles in place.
Bartier has conducted a study that concludes that there are no significant barriers to implementing a communal refillable-wine bottle system for the region of Southern Okanagan Valley. An Industry Standardized Bottle (ISB) would streamline refillable programs by reducing the need to spend additional time and space sorting different types of bottles. Bartier adds that bottle scuffing and sterilization still need to be addressed.
Julian Cleary, a PhD Candidate in the Geography Department at the University of Toronto, suggests that “there are coatings that you can add to bottles to make them much more resistant to scuffing and scratching.”
Across the country the different refillable wine bottle programs are demonstrating what is possible beyond conventional curbside recycling. This magazine will report on future successes and challenges as the new and existing programs expand. (See sidebar on options for Ontario, page 10.)
Catherine Leighton is Special Projects Coordinator at the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org