Wander into any liquor store this time of year, and you’re bound to see a growing share of the real estate dedicated to wine in cans. Typically served in 250-milliliter aluminum cans and sold by the four- or six-pack, canned wine seems to be the drink of choice for people enjoying the beach or summer picnics. It’s no wonder: Canned wine brands tout their products as alternatives to beer that are portable, single serve, and perfect to sip alfresco.
They are also antiestablishment: the typical person’s grape-based beverage compared with a luxury product that needs to be aged for decades before imbibing. It’s reflective in the sales numbers too. The category has grown 67% in the past year, clocking in at $75 million in sales, according to Nielsen data in May 2019.
But as much as canned wine brands boast ease of use, they also share bold claims about sustainability over traditional glass wine bottles: eco-friendly packaging, low carbon footprint, easily recyclable cans, and less food and packaging waste. Which raises the question: Is single-serve canned wine really a more sustainable product than a traditional 750-milliliter bottle of wine, which pours approximately five glasses?
“The environmental impact of glass bottle versus aluminum can is debatable,” says David Weitzenhoffer, general manager of Stupendous Cellars, which launched Right Now, a canned wine. “We need to continue to search for the most environmentally conscious way of doing business. It may be that neither cans nor bottles are the way of the future. It’s why these discussions are so important.”
Debatable is the correct word to describe sustainability in the wine industry. Numerous factors play into the impact a wine has on the environment, from the work in the vineyards pruning grapes and processes in the winery to how the product makes its way to the consumer’s wine fridge. The industry has long been plagued by its large carbon footprint and wasteful processes. In 2011, a wine industry report revealed that 70% of wine bottles ended up in landfills. Shipping wine across the United States in refrigerated trucks hardly reduces carbon emissions, and packing heavy and thick glass bottles neatly into cardboard cases presents challenges.
Where wine brands see the biggest opportunity for impact, however, is in three main areas: production of packaging, carbon emissions during shipping, and the recyclability of the packaging. While even proponents of canned wine believe there is a time and place for glass bottles, the ease of production and recycling of aluminum coupled with the lighter weight to ship makes canned wines a more eco-friendly option for everyday drinking, the brands say.
“Ninety-seven percent of all wine that is bought in this country is consumed within 72 hours of purchase and is less than two years old,” explains Marian Leitner, cofounder of Archer Roose, a wine company dedicated to sustainable packaging including cans. “That means the majority of wine drinkers in America are being driven not by the desire to collect wine, but to consume wine. If there is no reason to bottle-age wine, the wine shouldn’t be in a bottle.”
Recyclability and production
Several canned wine brand websites boast that they are recyclable and wine bottles aren’t. To start, both aluminum cans and glass bottles can be recycled, and they typically are by conscious consumers. The recycled materials end up back in both the cans and bottles you purchase. The slight difference is in the recycling process of aluminum versus glass.
To recycle aluminum, the process is straightforward and efficient—for consumers and the recycling plants. So much so that the global recycling rate on aluminum cans is 69%, according to Ball Corporation, a beverage packaging manufacturer. It takes only 5% of the energy to create a can out of recycled aluminum than mining. Given this ease, most aluminum cans on the market today are made from 100% recycled materials, earning the packaging the claim of being infinitely recyclable. Plus, it’s fast; cans can be back on shelves in just 60 days.
“It’s a really big deal that cans are used over and over again with no loss of quality,” says Jim Doehring, president of Source Code Beverage and owner of Backpack Wines. “If you put anything out that at that number—almost 70% recycled—you’re heading in the right direction.”
For glass, it’s a more complicated relationship. Shockingly, consumers are less likely to recycle glass than aluminum, and that’s largely due to the confusing recycling regulations that vary nationwide. In many counties, glass needs to be sorted by color or have labels removed before a bottle can be recycled due to differences in infrastructure. That’s less of an issue for aluminum cans in those same areas. Cans can be dropped in the bins; glass takes extra work, even for curbside recycling programs.
It’s not impossible, though, and plenty of wine brands, like Kendall-Jackson, have found ways to incorporate recycled glass into their products. Julien Gervreau, vice president of sustainability at Jackson Family Wines, has been heavily involved in the company's commitment to be more eco-friendly while maintaining the glass bottle packaging. One way they have done this is by collaborating with local manufacturers who use 50% to 60% recycled glass per bottle, a percentage he says is much higher than bottles purchased from overseas factories in China. He says that also has allowed them to be involved in the supplier’s clean production processes that result in a lower carbon footprint. Similarly, Gallo Glass, a subsidiary of E. & J. Gallo Winery, reports that approximately half of each bottle it manufactures is composed of recycled glass, making use of 200,000 metric tons a year. That is 30% of all recycled glass generated in California.
Likely bigger than the recycling and production processes are the carbon emissions associated with transporting large volumes of liquid around the world. In marketing materials, canned brands claim that one can is easier to ship than one bottle of wine, but that’s comparing apples to oranges. A 750-milliliter glass bottle has three times the liquid volume of a 250-milliliter aluminum can. Like other aspects, it takes peeling back another layer to truly understand the benefits.
“When you get it all calculated out, it’s about two trucks of glass bottles to one truck of cans, if you are talking about the same volume of liquid in the truck,” Doehring says. “I don’t have the exact carbon emission output, but it’s pretty simple math that one semi is going to be less emission than two.”
He explained that several factors play into the ease of shipping. To start, aluminum is lighter than glass, about 30% if you compare three 250-milliliter cans to one glass 750-milliliter bottle. Secondly, cans are packed more compactly: They make perfect cubes with no air space at the top of the box. The shape of a wine bottle means there is lost space in each box that could otherwise be filled with liquid product. Shipping more product by fewer trucks means less gas, fewer vehicles on the road, and ultimately, lower carbon emissions.
“We can ship twice as much product across the country,” says Ryan Harms, founder of Union Wine Company. “That has an impact on our carbon footprint and cost of shipping.” He explained that cans have other added benefits, including taking less storage space in refrigerators and needing less energy to cool—energy transfer through aluminum is easier, so cans cool down faster than glass bottles. (Cans also heat up more quickly.) “Some of those things are really small gains, but they are all positive realities for the can,” he says. “It adds up.”
But that doesn’t mean that glass hasn’t taken steps to lighten its load. Gervreau noted that Jackson Family Wines has reduced carbon emissions by 5% simply by shaving a couple of ounces off each bottle, a change so slight that customers didn’t even notice. Add to that the reduction in transportation costs, and it is a triple win.
Harms’s company owns Underwood, which sells wine in both glass bottles and cans. Like Gervreau, his team has progressed by leaps and bounds in making the glass bottle lighter. Additionally, he notes it's presumptuous to assume that all glass-focused wine brands are shipping by truck. Plenty of wine from Europe crosses the Atlantic via boat, and cross-country transportation for many volume producers happens by rail—both have lower emissions than vehicles. Oddly enough, shipping cans by rail causes damage to the packaging and is typically not an option for canned wine brands.
What does all of this mean to the consumer? Sustainability can speak with the wallet. Cans have the ability to lower the overall cost because the expense associated with packaging and shipping is lower. Therefore, it’s not passed along to the customer in the retail market. “We can deliver better quality wine at a better price [in cans],” Harms says.
But customers haven’t seen it that way. They observe the cheaper price and expect a lower quality product, leaving canned wine brands to educate buyers on that front as well. Lightening a glass bottle has less of a negative perception in the eyes of the customer.
“Cans have bigger disadvantages to overcome before they are competitive in the wine market, the main ones being consumer expectations and perceptions,” says Mike Richardson of market research firm The Freedonia Group. “Until wineries cover the issue of how consumers think wine is supposed to be packaged, canned wine is unlikely to move out of the niche status.”
Cans are hardly the only attempt at environmentally friendly packaging either. “It’s pretty amazing when you go to a wine shop these days how many different types of packaging there are,” Doehring says. There are boxes from Wineberry and Tetra Paks from Bota Box. Chandon recently released sparkling wine in aluminum splits (187 milliliters) instead of the traditional glass split for summertime sipping. MaiVino sources sustainably grown grapes in the New York Finger Lakes and packages it in recyclable and resealable plastic pouches that are the size of two wine bottles. Even Archer Roose makes kegs for certain high-volume hospitality accounts to serve wine on tap. And, of course, there is always the large-format glass bottle, such as a jeroboam or magnum, for a large social gathering.
“It’ll be interesting to see what is next,” Doehring adds. “Canned Coca-Cola has been around for a long time. I think now we’ll have canned wine for a long time.”
Canned wine makers are quick to point out that the sustainable perks of aluminum won’t displace glass entirely. As Leitner predicts, glass bottles will always be a part of the conversation for aging world-class wines: “I hope bottle-aged wines never go away, but for the wine that we drink and enjoy every day, I think we’re going to go for volume in alternative packaging. These formats are only going to get more popular.”
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