Chasing CleanTech in the Glass Bottle Industry

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Interest in glass bottles is growing as a storm of environmental and health-related concerns are brewing around plastic packaging (more specifically, “PET”).

In my last post, I promised to highlight industries where disruptive technologies could make significant inroads.  The glass bottle industry, which is ripe for innovation in the manufacturing, packaging, recycling, and refilling stages, is highlighted here.

According to Earth911, it is estimated that the production of plastics accounts for 4 percent of US energy consumption, the amount of oil used to produce plastic water bottles in the US is enough to fuel about 100,000 cars per year, and 8 of every 10 bottles will end up in a landfill.

That’s just the beginning.  The Container Recycling Institute warns:

Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Almost 40 percent of the PET bottles that were deposited for recycling in the United States in 2004 were actually exported, sometimes to as far away as China—adding to the resources used by this product.

From a cleantech perspective, is glass a viable alternative?  Maybe.

Although glass is endlessly recyclable and less toxic to us and the environment, it has many drawbacks.  Since it is much heavier than plastic, transporting it uses more energy and results in higher CO2 emissions (for a good discussion, read here and here).  Further, most glass furnaces used today in the manufacturing of glass bottles are fueled by natural gas.  This has two drawbacks: first, there is limited coordination between renewable energy sources and manufacturing processes; and second, it subjects glass bottle production to price volatility in the natural gas market.  But these drawbacks also represent opportunities to increase efficiency along the supply chain.

I recently caught up with Ian Kemsley, an inventor/entrepreneur spearheading an effort to challenge the way glass bottles are manufactured.  To fully appreciate what he’s doing, it’s important to put glass making in its proper historical context:

“We’re making glass essentially the same way as the ancient Romans,” says Ian Kemsley.  “There’s tremendous waste, and a huge amount of money to be made by innovating.”

In fact, the glass making process has not undergone a major change since the 1850s.  And the last disruptive innovation in the bottling industry came in 1903 when Michael Owens invented the automatic bottle-making machine.  Today, 80 percent of the glass containers in the US are supplied by just two companies: Owens-Illinois (“OI”) and Saint-Gobain.  This means that the manufacturing and distribution process is highly centralized, which increases the distance bottles must travel to reach end users.  Kemsley’s new furnace design would challenge these industry stalwarts by drastically improving energy and resource efficiency in the bottle manufacturing process, while also catering to local customers to cut down on transportation requirements.

While inventing new furnace solutions may sound daunting, improving the efficacy of our glass bottle recycling programs is not.  Today, 8 in 10 glass bottles end up in landfills.  Meanwhile, “glass cullet” (or recycled glass) can be used in the production of new bottles, a process that has four substantial environmental benefits: energy savings, lower emissions, reduced landfill, and a reduction in quarrying.  For its part, Coca Cola recently opened the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant to create a new revenue stream around PET chips.  Similar opportunities to capitalize on recycled glass have received scant attention thus far.

But there is a more efficient way to handle used bottles…refill them.  According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (“ILSR”), the market share for soft drinks in refillable glass bottles was 100 percent in the US in 1947.  In 2000, that number had declined to just 1 percent.  A similar decline is observed for refillable beer bottles and milk bottles are not far behind.

Meanwhile, glass beer bottles are refilled in Canada 15-20 times, and in France, a wine bottle will likely be refilled 8 times before being discarded.  Among the benefits of refilling programs: higher job creation than with recycling and waste disposal, and significant energy savings.  Numbers matter — it is estimated that Canada’s recovery of refillable beer bottles, other non-refillable beer containers and all associated beer packaging leads to the diversion of 1.3 million tons of beer packaging from Canadian landfills each year.  This post calculates:

Refilling a bottle 10 times slashes the energy required per use to one-fifth of what’s needed to produce a new bottle every time (and one-tenth of an aluminum can), which converts into a savings of 3,140,000 tonnes of CO2.

So what accounts for differences between the US and the rest of the world?  It has a lot to do with policy.  Outside the US, taxes and bans on one-way containers, quotas for refillable bottles as a percentage of sales volume, and separate retail systems for refilled bottles promote bottle refilling.  Aggressive marketing of one-way containers in the US is also to blame.  This post cites three additional barriers that discourage refilling in the US: 1) a heavy reliance on packaging for marketing products; 2) the difficulty of managing collection and deposit refund programs; and 3) consumers’ throw-away mentality.

INFORM lists five public policy options that would encourage glass bottle refilling in the US:

  • Requiring the use of generic (standardized) bottles

  • Providing financial incentives for companies that switch from one-way containers to refillable bottles
  • Establish broad materials policies — such as taxes on virgin materials or energy consumption
  • Establishing government procurement guidelines that require or give preference to refillables
  • Setting two-tier quantity based user fees for collection of recyclable and non-recyclable solid waste, giving consumers an incentive to to use refillables

Though bottle bills have proven to be a somewhat effective way to recapture used containers for recycling (and refilling in some cases), they are only part of the solution.  Improving efficiency in the way we produce, package, distribute, and reuse glass bottles will increase its attractiveness as an alternative to plastic and other beverage containers.  As with many industries, improving the sustainability of the glass bottle industry will require strengthening existing laws and pursuing more aggressive policies.  In most cases, more stringent recycling/refilling programs will improve the economic incentives of doing so.

For more information on best practices/sustainability issues associated with refillable beverage containers, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s in-depth discussion.

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7 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I am researching this concept because I own a winery in Michigan and we are about to launch a bottle refill policy for local consumers who intend to drink the wine within a short (2-3 week) time period. Our winery is located in an urban setting within the reach of thousands of wine drinkers by bike, foot, bus and of course auto. We hope to appeal to the locavores who also realize that it is crazy to keep manufacturing new glass in Mexico for transport to California for transport to Michigan for filling and transport a few miles to their house. Not to mention that it is getting very expensive.

    We intend to rinse all clean customer bottles with 160 degree water and then ozone rinse the bottles and sparge with Nitrogen before filling with wine. We recommend that all of our wines be refrigerated and that bottles intended for reuse are rinsed thoroughly after use and dried completely. 90% of our wine is white wines so this also serves the wine well.

    It will take some work on the part of the customers and the winery. In the end I think it will bring our winery into the fabric of the community. Think about it…roll down to the village winery for a few liters of wine, hit the farmers market on the way home, grab some bread at the bakery and meet your friends for a great meal. I have seen the beauty of this system in Europe and believe that, with time, Americans too can learn to enjoy wine on an everyday basis. Its part of our aging process.

  2. Great post! Doesn’t it make all too much sense to reduce, reuse, and recycle? My concern is that the combination of our contracting economy and the availability of cheap natural resources (particularly fossile fuels which are used to produce plastic bottles) will act as a drag on some of the exciting cleantech innovations you mention. My hope is that increased awareness, consumer pressure, and our new administration will champion cleantech and sources of alernative energy as both necessary for the health of our planet and as a source of domestic job creation.

  3. “glass beer bottles are refilled in Canada 15-20 times, and in France, a wine bottle will likely be refilled 8 times before being discarded. ”

    It’s a shame that in China hte glass beer Bottle can only be refiiled for once. It’s very bad to the enviremment protecting.

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