Making Alcohol Packaging Eco-Friendly

Stuart Pritchard July 19, 2019

Director and Founder at Impero, MICHAEL SCANTLEBURY, looks at the environmental pressures on packaging in the alcoholic drinks sector…

Packaging technology in the alcoholic drinks sector has improved, but it still has a way to go to get up to speed with environmental pressures. We only have to look at the world’s oceans to see that. What’s been done to date is figuratively a drop in the ocean – pun intended.

In the alcoholic drinks sector, packaging plays a huge role in driving brand awareness, desirability and shelf-standout. It provides visual cues to aid the consumer in the decision-making process, such as provenance, region or quality. A lot of the marketing budget goes into packaging and the physicality of a bottle or a can – the colour, the label, the substrate, the shape and, how it will stack on-shelf. All of these considerations are galvanised to do two things – appeal to consumers and to drive sales.

When it comes to alleviating eco-issues in the drinks sector, we must look at innovations in packaging technologies, and the luxury category is a good plan to start. For example, champagne bottles are famously heavy, using 700g – 900g of glass to hold the pressure (100psi) and from a brand perception point of view to promote the premium feel of the drink. Annual champagne consumption in the UK is expected to meet 22.6 million litres by 2021 (Euromonitor) and the empty bottles contribute to about 66,000 tonnes of glass to the UK’s waste stream (WRAP).

The impact on the environment is high in consumers’ minds, especially younger ones who are choosier about what they consume and who take the time to research the environmental values of producers.


Thatcher’s Cider has introduced lighter weight cans for its cider

Packaging production has changed with new tech. New production methods in glass technology make it possible to manufacture thin-walled lightweight glass bottles safely, that are 100% recyclable. This NNPB technology (Narrow Neck Press & Blow) is growing. According to Wrap, using glass champagne bottles with a reduced weight of just 100g could save 9300 tonnes of glass waste per year in the UK. However, convincing some of the more premium brands to do this is difficult. NNPB is expensive because producers need new machinery and training. Additionally, the category is steeped in tradition and method and Champagne producers who are unwilling to invest in change.

In the spirts category, we are seeing the emergence of the ‘alcohol pouch’. This year, Holla Spirts in the US launched a range of eco-friendly ‘boozin’ bags, delivered direct to consumers, the bags carbon footprint is 80% less than 750ml glass bottles. The growth of the pouch (and lighter beer cans) is being driven, in part, by festivals and large-scale events. In 2018, over 60 independent festivals in the UK committed to banning plastic straws and phasing out single-use plastic completely by 2021, as part of the Drastic on Plastic initiative.

In the beer category, aluminium technology has seen the rise of the can in craft beer, with lighter and more recyclable products. Beer brands have been innovating six-pack rings with compostable biodegradable solutions that are made from barley and wheat materials. Some brands are going to far as to make edible labels. Last year, Vilkmergės ŽIemos Ale launched a beer without a paper label, choosing instead an edible one, to reduce waste – perhaps a novelty but an interesting example of lateral thinking. World-famous beer brand, Carlsberg, innovated its six-pack by using biodegradable glue and this year, Thatcher’s Cider has introduced lighter weight cans for its cider, saving the equivalent of 5.9 million empty cans a year.


Carlsberg innovated its six-pack by using biodegradable glue

These innovations are encouraging, and it seems, how people/consumers respond to bad practice does make some producers take heed. We are also seeing an interesting shift in how eco-trends are influencing different sectors. For example, it is now unfashionable and looked down upon to take big holidays outside of the Nordic’s because of the jet fuel it demands. So, staycations are on the rise in this region. The same thing will happen to drinks packaging, shipping glass is extremely non-green (it’s heavy and takes up space) so we will see the growth of innovations in shipping, such as condensed liquid and diluting or repacking it closer to purchaser/new market.

Overall though, the inconvenient truth is that while producers are happy to be informed about new tech, they are often slow to respond – which is more likely than not down to cost. Producers will always look at the bottom line first, and until eco-alternatives are the same or cheaper than traditional methods change will be slow. However, this attitude isn’t sustainable in the long-term, and brands should support changes that are good for the environment and consumers’ wallets if they really want to win. Being authentic and meaningful on environmental values and ethics will keep savvy brands ahead of the game and future-fit.