The Wine Bottle Dilemma:

The Wine Bottle Dilemma:

illustrations by Emily Edgar

In a grocery aisle full of wine bottles, the options can seem endless.

To narrow down the choices, one could focus on a favorite varietal, the wine’s vineyard location or pick from a well-known winemaker’s collection. A decision could even be based entirely on the wine’s cost or its unique bottle art. But, during that decision-making process how often do consumers consider the wine’s sustainability profile?

Well, according to research from the Wine Institute, quite a bit. Researchers looked at a survey which found that 71% of wine drinkers would consider buying sustainably-produced wine in the future. Yet, the criteria for a wine to be considered sustainable can be overwhelming. And, to dive even deeper, to truly become a Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing vineyard and winery, winemakers must meet 60 vineyard and 41 winery prerequisite practices which include sustainable practices in areas like water efficiency, soil health, and a strong wildlife habitat.

One area for consumers (and aspiring, sustainable winemakers) to start: consider the wine bottle’s packaging.

In a 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1,810 thousand tons of glass was generated for wine and liquor bottles. That same year, less than 40% of these types of bottles were recycled while nearly 50% were sent to a landfill.

These are just the national numbers. In California, the exact data on the number of wine bottles recycled is a bit trickier to find. One of the reasons? The California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, which gives a few cents back to consumers for recycling their cans or bottles for a California Refund Value (CRV), doesn’t include wine bottles. Therefore, it is not required to report wine bottle recycling numbers, according to CalRecycle.

Luckily, California does have measures in place that makes recycling a priority. “Glass containers manufactured in California are required to contain 35% recycled content, with few exceptions. To date, California has the highest recycling content requirement of any state. One of our biggest problems is the availability of recycled glass to meet or exceed that requirement,” stated Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

For the wine bottles that do get recycled, they’ll begin the journey to be recycled back into glass products. Wine bottles are shipped to a treatment facility to be sorted by color and washed. (Some good news: Waste Management says green, clear or amber wine bottles are all recyclable). From there, the glass is broken down and the pieces “are sold to a glass container manufacturer to be melted and made into new glass bottles with recycled content,” according to CalRecycle. For the bottles that are thrown in in the trash, they will spend a long life in a landfill – 1 million years in fact, “waiting to decompose,” according to CalRecycle.

When glass is recycled, it helps to reduce carbon emissions used to create new glass products. For example, according to the Glass Packaging Institute, “for every six tons of recycled container glass used, a ton of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is reduced.”

This is a big deal considering that packaging made up 38% of the “relative impacts for the carbon footprint of packaged wine, cradle-to-retail gate” -and, out of that number, 29% of the overall footprint was attributed to the glass bottle, based on findings from a California Sustainable Wine Growing Alliance report.

According to the EPA, creating glass requires a lot of energy, mostly from fossil fuels. The EPA states that “combustion of fossil fuels results in emissions of CO2. In addition, manufacturing glass also results in process non-energy CO2 emissions from the heating of carbonates (soda ash and limestone).”

And, the creation of the glass bottle is just part of the process. That same bottle still needs to get filled with wine and transported to your local wine shop or grocery store, leading to more carbon emissions. Based on an article in Porto Protocol, titled “Accept Climate Change, or fight it?,” the “export of wine in glass bottles, and their transport and limited recycling had the largest carbon footprint in Australian studies at 68%.”

While the environmental impact may seem great, there are strides being taken for a greener industry. Just last year, more than 2,200 vineyards and 171 wineries were considered a certified California sustainable vineyard and/or winery, with the 171 wineries producing 80% of California wine. Out of those certified wineries, nearly all of them (98%) separate their recyclable glass, according to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).

There are a few areas that wine consumers and winemakers can consider to create a more sustainable wine industry: 

Consider Buying Local With more than 100 wineries in San Diego County, support your local wineries and vineyards by giving them a visit and buying wines directly from the source. 

Repurpose Wine Corks Wine corks are not recyclable in San Diego, however, natural corks (not made with synthetic material) can be composted. Napa Recycling recommends breaking up the cork into small pieces. For winemakers looking to recycle their corks, connect with ReCORK, a natural wine cork recycling program. They have recycling options in Los Angeles but new partners in the San Diego area can sign-up on their website. 

Always Recycle Your Glass Wine Bottles You can toss your used glass wine bottles (green, amber or clear) in the recycling bin in San Diego County. 

Purchase Lighter Wine Bottles According to Kendall Jackson, the standard 750ml wine bottle weighs around 720 grams. Challenge yourself to find a lighter option. If you’re feeling ambitious, find a wine like this: Inman Family Wines recently released a rosé with a bottle weight of 468 grams. 

Consider Reusable Wine Bottle Options Companies like Good Goods are reusing wine bottles to avoid new bottles from being made and unnecessary waste. Locally, LJ Crafted Wines are using refillable growlers. 

Look for the Certified California Sustainable Vineyard/Winery Logos When Buying Wine As of 2017, consumers can now find a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard or Winery logo on wine labels when the winery and vineyard are certified. 

Educate Yourself About Sustainable Practices with the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing This “green print” as Allison Jordan, Executive Director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, described it; provides a guide to measure a winery/vineyard’s level of sustainability with a goal at looking at ways to improve.