Ingenious ways to reuse bottles instead of recycling them

To tackle the problem of bottles ending in landfill, many European regions are turning to reuse. Barnaby Eales reports. 

The Bout à Bout reuse scheme was launched by Célie Couché
The Bout à Bout reuse scheme was launched by Célie Couché

Innovative wine bottle reuse projects have emerged in European wine regions, with producers of all sizes now involved in moves towards establishing a circular economy for wine. Wine bottles can be reused at least seven times to substantially lower the carbon footprint for wine production and prevent waste. 

Collecting used bottles from wineries, restaurants, bars, hotels and supermarkets, then transporting them to washing plants for cleaning before returning them to bottling lines, allows producers to reuse bottles instead of buying new ones. Recycling involves melting bottles at 1,500°C to make new bottles – and despite the increase of recycling in the EU, many wine bottles still end up in landfill sites. Reuse presents economic and logistical challenges, but also marketing opportunities.

Styria paves the way 

The region of Styria in Austria pioneered wine bottle reuse in 2011, when it launched a collection system using the Styrian wine bottle, which is taller than a standard 750ml wine bottle and features the emblem of the Styrian panther. “The unique design of the bottle makes its easy for consumers to recognise. It causes no confusion for them: the bottle is easily distinguishable in shape and size,” says Christian Schreyer, head of waste management for the regional government of Styria.

Styria has inspired partners in Catalonia’s reWINE, the newest major European reuse project, to consider introducing a standard bottle. Inèdit, an eco-innovation solutions company based in Barcelona, says the use of a standard bottle would facilitate the logistics of bottle washing. But some reWINE producers wish to retain freedom of choice over the wine bottles types they use.

A survey of 150 Spanish wine producers in Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon conducted by the Catalan zero waste agency Rezero in 2018 found that many larger producers would consider reuse, but for lower-priced volume-driven wines rather than for premium bottles. “I can imagine that all parties involved have to see whether it’s possible to agree on some standard bottles for certain segments, for example for the more volume-driven wines,” says Miguel Torres Maczassek, managing director of Torres.

Sixty Austrian producers are now involved in the Styrian reuse project that works at regional level for small- and medium-sized wine companies. It operates within a relatively small area with bottles circulating between vineyards, supermarkets, shops, restaurants and bottle-washing facilities. Between 5m and 6m Styrian wine bottles are filled each year. The number of refills increased by 3.5% during the project’s first year, but the regional government says it has not continued tracking how many bottles are refilled annually. “During the last two years we have not been directly monitoring the project,” Schreyer says. “There are no new experiences as there were no new subsidies made by the government. The project simply runs on its own.”

Sales of Styrian wine have increased, but the Styrian government says this could also be a result of an increase in production, and not uniquely attributed to bottle reuse. Austrianwines.com says wines from Austria now account for a greater share of domestic wine consumption, rising from 84% in 2003 to 90% in 2016.

“We made a huge effort in selling Styrian wines in the early 2000s and since then have increased plantings from 3,600ha to almost 4,900ha in 2018,” says consultant winemaker Martin Palz. “In 2017, Styria produced 256,000hl of wine – an amount which is less than what we supposedly drink. I’m sure that we have lost some share in the Austrian market to other regions due to the bad vintage in 2016 [which totalled 85,000hl], but we are fighting back with a high level of price-performance ratio.” 

In similar fashion, reWINE’s partners say its prospects have been lifted by the rise of demand for locally produced wines in Catalonia – the region with the fastest growing rate of wine consumption in Spain. Figures from the Catalan Institute of Vines and Wines (INCAVI), based on a Nielsen study, show that in 2018, for the first time, consumption of local Catalan wines outstripped Rioja in restaurants in Catalonia, with Catalan wines holding a 35.7% share of wine consumption in the region.  

This trend in demand, reWINE partners say, will help promote the reuse system to bring down costs. Catalan authorities estimate that about 600,000 wine bottles are used each day in Catalonia (soft drink and beer bottles are already reused for hotel and restaurant distribution). 

Having secured almost €1m ($1.14m) in funding, 60% of it from the EU, reWINE has reused more than 30,000 bottles in Catalonia since its launch last autumn. Backed by the public Waste Agency of Catalonia, it aims to reuse 100,000 wine bottles and reduce 45 tonnes of waste by the end of 2019.

Bottle washing

In its pilot phase, reWINE covers the transport and bottle washing costs of participating Catalan producers, which include large co-operative Falset Marçà as well as the smaller producers Celler La Vinyeta, natural wine producer Talcomraja and Vins Pravi. Falset Marçà reuses its Etim wine in the project, which represents about 10% of its production. Torres is playing an advisory role in the project through its R&D team as part of its quest to reduce CO2 emissions per bottle by 30% by 2020.

Vins Pravi has its own bottle washing facility, but the other wine producers use a washing plant in the neighbouring region of Valencia. The project could lead to the construction of a facility in Catalonia, to bring down transport costs. 

Styria has two large washing stations, as well as smaller private washing facilities at vineyards, and producers have introduced soluble wine labels to make reuse easier. “About 2,500 bottles can be washed per hour. It’s a fast enough rate for small and medium-sized vineyards,” says Palz.

In France, the Bout à Bout reuse scheme, based in the Muscadet country of Pays Nantais and in use in the Loire Valley, allows producers to wash seven sizes of Burgundy bottles at a nearby facility in Clisson. Launched two years ago by Célie Couché, Bout’ à Bout’ has secured partnerships with wine producers, distributors, shops and restaurants and bottle-washing plants. It won the city of Nantes’ social innovation prize in 2017 and has secured further funding at regional level. In a bid to reduce costs by increasing reuse volumes, Bout’ à Bout’ wants to attract French supermarkets to participate in its reuse scheme.

There is also a new bottle reuse scheme in Provence led by the Ecoscience association, in which wine bottles are washed in Beaune, some 500km away, at a facility which predominantly washes beer, rather than wine bottles. 

Elsewhere in the EU, wine bottle washing is limited to certain types of bottles and closures. In the German region of Württemberg, for instance, wine service company WSG in Möglingen washes bottles for large wineries and cooperatives. However, producer Michael Maier says WSG limits cleaning to one-litre bottles with MCA screwcaps. 

Incentives

In France, organic, biodynamic and natural wines feature in reuse schemes. Vins Richard has invested €700,000 in a bottle reuse system which last year included the launch of Le Titi, a new range of organic and vegan wines produced in five French wine regions. Vins Richard bottles wines and supplies restaurants and hotels in Paris, offering on-trade establishments €4.50 per 12-bottle case to store empty bottles until they are collected. The Castel Group last year started selling an organic Côtes du Rhône wine with a €0.20 deposit fee at 46 of its Nicolas wine shops in France.

In December 2018, biodynamic wine producer Domaine de la Marseillaise washed and reused 1,200 Burgundy wine bottles as part of the launch of a new reuse scheme led by Ecoscience in Provence. The producer, which offers a free bottle of wine to customers using the system, says its motivation is centred on environmental concerns rather than the potential economic benefits of reuse.

In that same month, the French government’s environment ministry held a meeting with Bout’ à Bout’ to assess the potential of a nationwide deposit payment scheme.

However, such schemes have not found favour elsewhere: the Styrian regional government says a deposit return scheme would involve excessive administrative costs, so its reuse project provides discount incentives for consumers of Styrian wine. TOMRA bottle return stations installed at 150 Spar supermarkets offer 5% discounts on purchases of Styrian wine, with wine producers offering €0.10 vouchers for purchases ex-cellar. 

In Catalonia, participating producers use reWINE stickers on labels and offer consumers a chance to win free wine and wine tours with each purchase.

Costs

The regional government of Styria says reuse of Styrian bottles, including transport and washing, costs less than half (€0.20) the price of buying a new Styrian bottle (€0.45 per new bottle). Thomas Schabl, sommelier at Gross vineyard, a medium-sized producer, says Gross uses Styrian wine bottle because of their strength and resilience, but says it has only a return rate of 10% as much of its production is sold further afield than Styria.

But large producers which buy big quantities of bottles are able to secure lower prices than the average cost of new Styrian bottles. And large producers like Neumeister, which do not use the Styrian bottle, can buy bottles at lower prices than the cost of cleaned bottles. “We pay €0.15 for each new bottle,” says Sebastian Bruckner, assistant manager at Neumeister vineyard.

However, the regional government of Styria points out that cleaning bottles requires only around 0.09kWh of energy per bottle, compared with approximately 1.1kWh to produce a new bottle. Inèdit says packaging accounts for more than 40% of total CO2 emissions in wine production. 

“Wine producers can reduce their carbon footprint by 30% by reusing wine bottles instead of recycling them,” says Marta Beltran, coordinator of Rezero, a partner in reWINE. Rezero says only about half of all wine bottles are recycled in Catalonia: there is clearly a market for reuse. 

Styria has shown reuse can work at a regional level. It could reduce costs for users and producers, but requires reform to legislation, which currently favours recycling and glass manufacturing companies, to ensure sufficient volumes are generated to overcome economic and logistical hurdles.

 

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