Is my wine cork compostable?
Like most things about sustainability, the answer to the question of how to dispose of your cork is, “It depends.” And because wine packaging includes so many components, the considerations in sustainability are complex.
While there are a number of efforts which exist to promote sustainable vineyards and farms, the question of sustainable packaging in wine is not typically addressed by these groups. Some of the broadly accepted sustainability efforts in wine, excluding packaging, include:
There is also the movement by Bcorps which provide guardrails for good stewardship of people, profit and the planet. Companies which join the Bcorps movement can make choices to improve the triple bottom line through a variety of measures. https://bcorporation.net/
*Chart sourced from Vignevin.
If you are a winery looking to lighten your impact on the planet through improving your packaging, here are some ideas to consider. Some are incremental, some are paradigm-shifting. But any effort is worth it.
There are a few categories of environmentally conscious options for packaging material:
- Made from Renewable Material
- Recyclable Material
- PCW Content Material
- Biodegradable Material
- Overall environmental footprint (weight, CO2 emissions, transportation impact)
Renewable materials are things like natural cork and paper, including corrugated boxes. Some papers are made from crops other than trees (like hemp). Primary containers for wine made from renewable materials really are limited to glass—technically sand isn’t renewable (we can’t grow more) but it is naturally occurring.
There are paper “bottles” on the market, however, they are structured with a coating or plastic liner on the inside to provide a moisture barrier. While manufacturers claim the layers can be easily separated for recyclability, there is a healthy skepticism about the actual recycle stream capability.
(The cap and closure for these paper bottles is aluminum or plastic-based, so it too would need to be separated and sent into different recycling stream.) Much of this burden lands on the consumer, and it requires consumer education.
For ease of recyclability, containers made of one material is best—think glass with silkscreen instead of a label or direct printed aluminum. Yes, a label can go into the recycle bin, and the paper will be dissolved and removed, but if you’re using a label rated for cold box, chances are there is a poly layer in that paper, which is not recyclable in that stream.
A shrinksleeve (made of polypropylene) on an aluminum can needs to be removed prior to recycling. So, you see the complexities.
Some consumers have homed in on the amount of post-consumer waste in materials (PCW). There are any number of papers made with PCW, including Raflatec Vanish PCR which incorporates 90 percent post-consumer recycled content in both the PET face and the liners. Most corrugated has a high recycled content. There are increasing levels of recycled PET available, including some closed loop suppliers—doing their own recycling of PET to create new containers. The use of PCW is invisible to the consumer, unless you tell them.
Biodegradable materials, or compostables, is sometimes a bit of greenwashing, unless the product is certified. The Biodegradale Products Institute has formed standards against ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868, and will certify a product accordingly. https://www.bpiworld.org/.
There is a lot of work being done on compostable flexible packaging— essentially adding enzymes to the material to accelerate its breakdown. However, there is an argument that additives are a red herring. (see: Packaging Digest Story from March 2021). Other than natural cork, the most likely candidate for biodegradable material for wine is PET with enzymes, or the paper bottle with something to break down the liner. Which of course would need to be tested with your wine for integrity.
Now, let’s consider weight, and the overall impact on emissions by looking at some common wine containers.
Glass: between the heat to make it and the fuel to move it, glass emits an exorbitant amount of carbon dioxide. There are, of course, lighter weight glass molds to choose from. It may make sense for an on-premise SKU to be in heavy weight glass, but if you’re exporting to another country or shipping DTC, you might consider an alternative glass.
PET: lightweight, but unless you’re choosing recycled PET, the carbon impact on the planet is severe, along with the waste impact. Less than 30% of PET is recycled, and PET has a limited lifespan, recycling only 2-3 times before it degrades to unusable. There are educational initiatives to improve the return rate such as the Every Bottle Back Campaign. (https://www.innovationnaturally.org/plastic/)
The upside to PET is the lightweight for shipment. If you are an all DTC winery, you might check out the Garcon https://www.garconwines.com/, a paradigm and shape shifting PET bottle designed for ease of mailing.
Aluminum: Manufacturing emits a decent amount of carbon into the atmosphere, and requires a ton of electricity, but aluminum has about a 68% recycle rate, and there is no limit to the number of times it can be recycled. While lightweight for shipping, it can get easily damaged in transit if not properly packed.
Bag in a Box: Analysis from a life cycle review suggest that even with the environmental impact of the non-recyclable packaging components (the spout and plastic bag), boxed wines are more sustainable than glass bottles. They fit well in shipping boxes, are relatively lightweight and can be easily recycled once disassembled.
Aseptic (Tetrapak): A lightweight, multilayer material, made of paper, aluminum foil & plastic. While it can be recycled, they are not always accepted curbside and may require a third partner clearinghouse.
According to some life cycle analysts, out of all possible wine containers, the cleanest and most sustainable packaging option for wine seems to be aluminum cans or plastic-lined boxes. Of course, your considerations may be different. Compared to single use glass bottles, the impact of bag-in-box is from 60% to 90% lower.
One additional consideration for overall environmental impact to consider, if you are printing labels, sleeves or shippers, is to choose digital printing over another print process. Digital printing allows for quick turnarounds and short runs which avoids obsolescence. Additionally, the amount of waste generated for digital printing is significantly less than flexo or litho, saving thousands and thousands of feet of material.
Most all of the components available on Sandbox are printed digitally, including the corrugated. Many of the items are size-optimized for digital presses to eliminate waste during production. We aspire to use vendors close to your distribution point to minimize trucking and shipping of inbound materials.
Using less material is always better than using more material. Consider this even in your label sizes and consider the press configuration and waste. Sometimes reducing a label a few millimeters will allow for an additional label on the width of the paper web.
An area of interesting research in packaging is in reusable and refillable containers. There is effort being put into auto-refill technology for many categories. Think of a stainless steel “keg” with a device measuring wine depletion. When it hits a predefined level, a reorder is automatically sent to you to ship a new “bag” of wine for the consumer to place into the stainless steel dispenser. High volume, low footprint.
Reusable is also becoming the buzz—the old milkman approach. There is a winery in La Jolla using refillable 1 liter glass bottles decorated with silkscreen (and an electrostatic label for varietal) and closed with a swing top. Club members come and pick up their monthly wine, returning their previous month’s glass which is washed and refilled.
If you really want to lean into reusable, there is now a reusable shipper available for 750mL wine bottles. Studies show reusable is best within about 75-100 miles in terms of overall environmental impact.
To look quantitatively at what impact your initiatives might have, you can use a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool. It is a methodology that allows evaluation of the environmental performances of a product considering the whole life cycle or just a portion of its life.
Lifecycle Assessment Tools:
Finally, let’s talk consumer education: so often, even consumers who want to do the right thing don’t know how to properly dispose of an item. It is incumbent on you to tell them— especially when you are making efforts to improve your impact. They won’t know if you don’t tell them.
In North America, you can use https://how2recycle.info/ standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.
It can be simple: for example, add a tear strip to your shrinksleeve to allow for easy removal. If you have a multipart container, it will be more complicated. You may need to direct them to a third party for proper recycling, such as Terracycle or Cork ReHarvest.
Given limited real estate on your package, you can leverage your social media, website, and connected packaging (ie, a simple QR code on your label) directing them to your other platforms or to the third party you’ve engaged to help with your efforts.
Terracycle helps companies large and small provide a way for consumers to return containers for recycling or reuse. www.terracycle.com
One of the third parties for cork recycling is: www.corkforest.org/cork-reharvest.
Now, back to the question of how best to recycle that cork:
Natural corks go in your compost bin, but not the recycling bin. For third party recycling and collection boxes, use a third party like ReCORK or Cork ReHarvest.
Synthetic or Agglomerate corks need to go in your trash bin. They are made from a non-recyclable combination of materials, and they are too small to be recovered in the recycling.
Metal screwcaps go in the recycling bin, but make sure to remove the screwcap from the bottle so they can be sorted correctly.
Bottom line: A 2020 survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 15,000 consumers found that a whopping 74% said they would pay more for beverages in sustainable packaging! This means a win for people, the planet, and for profit.