How green is your packaging? It’s a question on many businesses lips; producer, wholesaler and retailer. In this timely blog, from WBC Managing Director Andrew Wilson, considers some of the difficult questions we are grappling as a packaging business. The difficulty of balancing cost, level of protection and environmental friendliness
What’s the big deal?
As a UK wholesale packaging business, we have been trying to balance the three key concerns of our wine audience for some time now. Cost versus the level of protection and environmental friendliness. With the new Producer Responsibility Regulations looking likely to come into force in 2020, our current “tax” of £18,000 could possibly increase tenfold to £180,000. That alone is enough to focus the mind. Eighty per cent of the wine bottle packaging we sell has a high recycled content and is 100% recyclable. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t sell the other less environmentally friendly 20%, which includes polystyrene and plastic. So the question is…
In almost all cases, they are in fact the best if not only solutions presently available for the high-value, temperature-sensitive items that many of you sell. Rather than take a hard line on this, I rather think my job is to offer my customers the unvarnished truth about the packaging options open to them and allow them to make a choice.
How green is your transit packaging?
When customers ask why you’ve sent their wine in polystyrene or inflatable plastic transit pack, what do you say? Can it be recycled? Is there a more environmentally friendly alternative (MEFA)? These are questions you will grapple with increasingly, but they become secondary when safe delivery is at play. Breakages in transit are the curse of the modern wine retailer. One breakage usually renders the rest of the case unsaleable, and the costs involved can be painful. On higher value or rare bottles, they may be irreplaceable altogether. So there’s a choice
to be made.
Eco versus level of protection
Polystyrene or inflatable plastic transit packaging is used as commercially safe courier-approved packaging for sending bottles. Many companies claim polystyrene is recyclable but the truth is, try putting it in your recycling bin and you will usually find it’s rejected. Our polystyrene is EPS expanded polystyrene and whilst it is 100% recyclable, recycling centres that are able to do so in the UK are few and far between. This is a thoroughly modern conundrum and reflects the level of protection vs. MEFA decisions that wine retailers need to make.
In our quest for the greenest wine packaging available, we’ve found that often many biodegradable materials are even more damaging to the environment as they break down into microplastic particles that end up in the watercourses and food chains. If plastic is the problem, the lack of efficient infrastructure to recycle it at present is compounding it. Whilst 82% of card packaging is recycled, this drops to 44.9% for plastic. So how does that help you? Well knowledge is power, and whilst both these transit options fail the MEFA test, they pass the level of protection with flying colours, so from a customer satisfaction level, there simply is no other alternative at present for high valued wines (although we are working on it!).
Courier-approved eco options
It is not all bad news though, for lower value bottles (or those of you with careful couriers or doing your own deliveries) the world is a greener place with bottle backing and transits that carry up to 70% recycled content and are 100% recyclable pretty much anywhere. We are by no means the only provider of transit packaging and no better or worse than others in terms of our constant struggle to be greener and still deliver a product that works. However, as a large user of wood-based products, we decided to try and minimise our impact at the height of the CO2 story 10 or so years ago.
In true WBC style, we decided to go it alone and bought 61 acres of land near Bordeaux (mainly because it was way cheaper than buying land in the UK) and planted a tree for every transit packaging order that was placed with us. Over the years, we planted 30,000 trees that are still a way off from being harvested. It is just one of several actions we as a small business have taken along with being transparent with our customer bases and reviewing all our packaging to find MEFA where we can.
The future of wine packaging
Where does the future lie for offering environmentally-friendly wine packaging? We have noted the emergence of lightweight and plastic wine bottles as well as cans and refillable bottles and we all do well to keep track of these developments. We are actually launching a new box that fits through a standard letterbox that fits two of the new flat Garcon Wine bottles in. I am not sure I would want a flat bottle of wine dropped through my letterbox but I am probably not the target audience!
We are also looking at honeycomb card options to replace polystyrene but the cost and speed of use are prohibitive at the moment. However, we keep trying. Little things can go a long way, and it’s important that they spill into how you run your place of work too; replacing bottled water in the office with filtered tap water and reusable bottles, going “back to the future” with milk delivered in glass bottles and we even have our own compost heap (which has become a great testing ground for supposedly biodegradable plastic compost bags – all of which have failed the 18 months test so
The fact is, as a small business owner trying to navigate my way through kinder materials and practices, I’m not about to save the world on my own. But every little surely has to help.
Biodegradable v Recyclable Plastic
Our current bubble wrap and plastic bags are recyclable but not biodegradable. If you make them biodegradable then they cannot be recycled as they are designed to degrade in landfill over an unprovable (in our opinion) length of time. So our feeling was that recyclable was better BUT it is not that easy to recycle a plastic bag and you are not allowed to put them in your domestic recycling bin in a lot of places.
More recently we have started to see “compostable” plastic bags being advertised but from our research, these will only compost on a carefully managed compost heap that is kept at constant 60 degrees and with the correct levels of humidity. This rules out most domestic compost heaps and so how does the consumer compost them?
There seem to be initiatives in place to improve recycling of plastic so our feeling is that in the medium term, recyclability is better than biodegradability and compostability.