SWGB: sustainability and using glass wine bottles
Sustainability isn’t a “nice to have” these days, it’s an essential part of business success, and winegrowing is no exception. In an exciting development last year, WineGB (English and Welsh wine’s national association) commenced a new environmental sustainability scheme. It’s called SWGB, standing for Sustainable Wines of Great Britain. The SWGB code affirms that members “have a shared responsibility to minimise our impact on the environment in which we operate and maximise our contribution to environmental sustainability and biodiversity.”
Thirty wineries became SWGB founder members in February 2020, a mix of big names, boutiques and growers. Realising they can achieve more together than alone, they are responsible for 40% of Britain’s vineyard area. That also means 6.8 million bottles of wine. While our wine industry already has some sustainable initiatives, SWGB means we now have a nationally certified scheme, similar to those established in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Chile.
Although SWGB is only approaching its first anniversary, the membership has already grown significantly. There’s now an impressive 92 vineyards and wineries signed up!
What is the SWGB scheme?
The initial goal is undertaking SWGB certification, which has several stages. First, business processes are measured and documented using five vine growing objectives and six winemaking objectives. Next, the WineGB Carbon Calculator uses those measurements to show the current carbon footprint. It also enables the creation of a triennial business sustainability plan. A successful independent third-party audit then results in certification.
It’s no small task, but 18 members have achieved certification so far, with more to come this year. After three years, the auditors return to measure progress, approve a new three-year plan, and renew the certificate. In short, the overall aim of SWGB is to use continual improvement so that our wine industry can be carbon-neutral by 2030.
Certified members can use the SWGB trademark to show they are striving for environmental sustainability. Indeed, the first wines carrying this logo will be available to buy this spring.
The SWGB objectives
There are five objectives for vine growing and six for winemaking. These apply to the individual business as appropriate.
Grape Britannia – a success story
At this point, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the success of the British wine industry. In turn, that demonstrates the scale and challenge of achieving carbon neutrality.
According to WineGB, in 2019, the UK had 770 vineyards and 165 wineries. Between them, they have 3,500 hectares of vines in England and Wales. That area has snowballed – an increase of 150% in the last ten years and 400% over the previous 20 years.
In 2019, 10.5 million bottles were made, with 72% sparkling wine and 28% still wines. 98% of that sparkling wine uses the classic method to achieve world-class quality.
Hence our home wine industry may be small, but it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing wine regions! Growth will continue, as there is a great deal of new vineyard planting yet to come on stream, with three million vines planted last year alone. Indeed, WineGB forecasts production at 40 million bottles per year by 2040.
By concentrating on sustainability now, more of this future growth will be along sustainable lines from the outset.
Meanwhile, the two winemaking objectives highlighted above are those which are influenced by using glass wine bottles. As some studies show that these can account for up to 39% of a carbon footprint, it’s clear that addressing this can bring significant sustainability benefits.
How can glass wine bottles become more sustainable?
A previous article showed that glass wine bottles have many unique material advantages plus high consumer acceptance. It also recognised that glass has downsides too, particularly in weight, transport and manufacture. Recently, alternative containers made from other materials have emerged, some claiming greener credentials. While these may be appropriate in niche use-cases, they also have detrimental environmental impacts.
What’s clear is that there is no magic bullet on the road to sustainability.
Meanwhile, our home wine industry is reliant on glass bottles. After all, they are essential to the classic method of sparkling winemaking, without substitute. Besides, most of our wine production is premium quality regardless of style. Consequently, examining ways to improve the sustainability of glass is potentially rewarding. The suitability of these depends on the individual wine business and its stakeholders.
98% of English sparkling wine is made in the bottle using the Classic Method. In turn, it means that our wine industry relies on glass bottles that can withstand up to six bar of pressure, both during the lengthy winemaking process and potentially for many years afterwards. Historically, this has meant a heavy bottle with thick walls to compensate for any weak spots in the glass, typically weighing 900 g when empty. However, since 2008, Nyetimber has used lighter bottles of 835 g, in an improvement similar to that undertaken by Champagne. That’s reduced their carbon footprint by 10%. It’s particularly significant because their annual production is now one million bottles per year, with a plan to double that over the next ten years.
The remaining 28% of production is for still wine. Using the same idea, WRAP estimated that reducing a 750 g bottle to 350 g reduces emissions by 30%. Examples of rightweighting bottles are increasingly common globally. Indeed, glass wine bottles are available in Britain at 330 g, which offer the same strength, reliability and performance as their older and heavier brethren.
Emergent wine styles.
As winegrowing in Britain has expanded, so other sparkling wine styles have begun to appear. With just 2% of production today, they may be niche but are an expanding category. These have one thing in common: less gas pressure, which allows even lighter bottles.
For example, the French Crémant / Italian Satén style is only 4.5 bar rather than 6 bar – so that the bottle weight need only be around 650 g. Then, the lightly sparkling Frizzante style requires only 1-2.5 bar so that it could be even lighter at 500 g or less, just like a bottle of sparkling water. Besides, Frizzante is under 3 bar, so it attracts a lower tax! And how about a biodynamic pét-nat style with a gas pressure of 2-3 bar? Ancre Hill is making a delightful example in Wales.
The recycled glass needs 25% less energy and has 30% less CO2 than making new glass from virgin materials, so the British glass industry can’t get enough of it. A new green wine bottle can be up to 95% recycled glass. Clear (flint) glass has a lower recycled content (because less clear glass is currently available) but can still reach 40%. Another critical point is that glass is infinitely recyclable, without any degradation. Recycling is commonplace, but we need to optimise it!
Refillable beverage bottles have been in decline for many years, driven by a lack of standardisation and changing consumption habits. There are now trials using refillable wine bottles at some supermarkets. However, 29% of the wine made in Britain sells from the “cellar door” at the winery, so why not offer refills at source for local customers, meaning reusing the glass bottle multiple times? It isn’t feasible for sparkling wines, but instead, a replacement bottle could be offered at a discount to encourage returns, then recycle it or reuse it (see below).
Cellar door sales generated by winery tours, events and restaurants result in significant numbers of empty glass wine bottles. These can potentially be reused multiple times instead of recycled. It’s necessary to sanitise them, using water and energy. However, the carbon footprint of this is far less than recycling the empties. According to Informinc, if the same bottle can be recovered and refilled 25 times, 93 per cent less glass and energy is required! The Burrowing Owl winery in British Columbia, Canada, has shown success with this, as it has 100,000 visitors per year. Hence it may be feasible for larger wineries or a local cluster of wineries working together.
Colour is related to recycling. As we see above, ensuring the use of coloured bottles increases recycled content, saving materials, energy and emissions. Marketers may prefer clear glass for rosé wine. However, Coates and Seely have changed from clear to green glass for their NV sparkling rosé, and it still tastes great!
90% of our wine stays in this country, with a large proportion distributed locally. Less transportation means a smaller carbon footprint than for many wine imports. So why not optimise this by using glass wine bottles made in Britain? British manufacturers supply a vast amount of glass bottles for our spirits industry. They also make an extensive range of glass wine bottles, including lighter weights and high recycled content. Buy British isn’t just patriotic; it reduces glass transport miles and complements the wine’s origins! Those wineries using third-party bottlers could encourage them to use British glass bottles too.
Grape Britannia, while small, is experiencing unprecedented growth and success. The new SWGB sustainability scheme means that becoming carbon neutral by 2030 is achievable, helping to continue that success and battle climate change. As part of this, how we use glass wine bottles makes a real difference.
Meanwhile, look out for the SWGB and support English and Welsh wine!
My third article on British Glass Wine Bottles and sustainability covers the UK Bulk wine market. Find out about that here.