Taking action

Can alternative bottles reduce wine’s climate impact – or is it all a waste?

As more wine becomes available in alternatives to glass, from plastic to boxes and cans (including some of The Society’s own-label wines), it’s unclear what is genuinely better for the planet. Here, Wasteland author Oliver Franklin-Wallis assesses the options.

Can alternative bottles reduce wine’s climate impact – or is it all a waste?

The scrape of blade on foil; the gaseous pop of the cork (or more often now, the scritch of the screw top); the glug of the liquid sloshing from the neck – for centuries, the sensations of pouring a glass of wine were inseparable from the glass bottle it came in. These days, however, we might be just as used to hearing the click of a box tap, the tssk of a ring-pull can, or the gentle crinkle of a plastic bottle.

As the wine industry and consumers focus on doing our best to combat the climate crisis, our wine drinking habits are changing. More of us are experimenting with wine in new packaging from paper-pulp bottles to wine-by-keg and, in doing so, overthrowing outdated ideas of how wine needs to be sold, shipped, and served.

This is for good reason. According to a 2019 study by University of Helsinki academic Dr Helen Ponstein, packaging accounts for 57 percent of wine’s greenhouse gas emissions. The bottle itself accounts for up to 47 percent. But presented with a raft of new alternatives, it can be hard to know what’s really better for the environment, and what’s just being marketed as such. That’s particularly relevant when it comes to throwing the packaging away; while we often assume our glass bottles end up recycled, that’s not always true. (And don’t get me started on plastics.) 

So, what’s the reality behind these different types of wine packaging?


Firstly, let’s start with glass. Recent analysis by the Wine Society showed that glass bottles are the single biggest contributor to its carbon footprint, accounting for 31% of total emissions. And lugging around all that glass is another challenge: a further 21% of emissions results from shipping heavy bottles from around the world to members’ doors. 

The UK’s glass recycling rate is pretty good, 73.6% in 2021. And the benefits of recycling glass are clear – for every tonne of recycled glass, 250kg of CO2 is saved in the production of the new bottle. But it’s not quite that simple. In the UK, most of our recycled glass is not actually “circular” – that is, it’s not recycled back into new bottles. A lot of it is turned into aggregate - for use in building materials. Some is lost to landfills and incineration. And around 79,000 tonnes of it per year is exported overseas. This, in part, is due to the lack of bottling facilities in the UK compared with Europe, but is also due to our mixed recycling streams – everything thrown into the bin together – producing dirtier material. All that means that bottle-to-bottle ‘closed loop’ recycling is only 43%, compared to 61% in France and 77% in Germany. Add that to the high CO2 footprint of glass and its heavier weight, and it’s not hard to see why many producers are now looking for alternatives.


Perhaps the biggest alternative to glass right now is the bag-in-box. These tend to be constructed of a cardboard outer box, with an interior “bladder” made of a multi-layered plastic or composite, and then a tap made of another plastic. The advantage is that they keep wine fresh for a long time, and they have a much lower carbon footprint: one Finnish study by Gaia Consulting in 2018 estimated the emissions of a 3L bag-in-box were nearly one tenth of that of a 0.75L glass bottle.

The cardboard outer is extremely recyclable – the UK’s cardboard recycling is about 71%, quick, and effective; chances are your box will be another box within two weeks. The plastic components are less clear, though. While some bag-in-box manufacturers claim their entire product is recyclable, often the plastic bag and the plastic tap will need separating. This means the multi-layered laminate bags need to be recycled at dedicated facilities, most can’t simply go into our recycling bin at home. Unfortunately the rates of plastic pouch recycling leave much to be desired in the UK – depending on the plastic, recycling rates can be as low as the single figures.

PET (plastic) bottles

Another alternative quickly gaining traction is the polyethylene terephalate bottle. These are both much lighter than glass, and more flexible: flat plastic bottles allow manufacturers to fit more into their vehicles, lowering transport emissions. (According to the Gaia study, a PET bottle had just under half of the CO2 emissions of a similarly sized one made from glass.) PET is one of the most stable and widely recycled plastics in the UK; about 75% of all PET drinks bottles are recycled, according to the British Plastics Federation. It’s not perfect: PET, like all plastics, degrades as it’s recycled, so can only be remade into new products a handful of times – and there is troubling, if inconclusive, evidence about the dangers of microplastics, which can leach during the recycling process. But on greenhouse gas emissions alone, it’s a promising alternative.

Aluminium cans

There’s something inherently satisfying about wine in a can – particularly if it’s sparkling, perhaps because we already associate the fizz after the satisfying click of opening a cold one. Some wine retailers are already replacing their line-ups of small bottles with canned wines; according to one analysis, cans create less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of an equal-volume glass bottle, and are easier to transport. Aluminium is also highly recyclable – one can can be remade again and again with little decline in quality, and manufacturing a new can from recyclable material reduces its footprint by up to 95%.

Other alternatives

The alternatives to glass bottles don’t stop there. Paper-like bottles, for example, promise the familiar shape and feel of glass, but in a lower weight and recyclable packaging. Stainless-steel kegs – typically used for beer, but coming more and more to wine – offer an option in larger sizes, and are (at least on the face of it) widely recyclable. And even simpler alternatives, like reducing the emissions of glass bottles by making them thinner and more lightweight, or collecting the bottles for refills rather than simple recycling, all pose exciting (if, for now, relatively small-scale) solutions. One thing is clear: it seems that the days of the old-fashioned glass bottle may be numbered.

How does it work? The stages of recycling 

  • Collection: your recycling is collected from your home using either ‘single stream’ (mixed together) or separated streams and sent to a Materials Recovery Facility, or “MRF”. 
  • Sorting: materials are separated using a mixture of mechanical and human methods to collect similar materials (plastics, glass, cardboard) into a pure, single stream.  
  • Break down: most materials are shredded (in the case of plastics or fibre) or smashed (in the case of glass) and in some cases melted down into their constituent chemical. In the case of cardboard, the fibre is washed or re-bleached to remove impurities.  
  • Reconstitution: the broken-down material is reformed into its original state, often with the addition of a certain amount of virgin materials (that is new paper, plastics, or glass) in order to maintain the quality of the product. 
Oliver Franklin-Wallis


Oliver Franklin-Wallis

Oliver Franklin-Wallis is a journalist and features editor at British GQ. His book Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, And Why It Matters is out now.

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