Packaging is one of the most important parts of starting a new distillery. I am sure every one of us has agonized over every inch of our bottles. Making your spirits stand out on the shelf is critical, but the next generation of craft spirits buyers might have something else in mind when looking at your packaging: sustainability. As Diageo and other large producers are pushing the envelope with new packaging solutions that appeal to environmentally-minded consumers, it is important to take a broad look at the packaging industry and how to select the best options to represent your brand.  

Packaging is one of the leading causes of waste across most manufacturing industries, especially in distilling. At the sustainability summit last year, we were asked what the most sustainable packaging solution is between glass, plastic and paper. The answer might not be as cut and dry as you would expect. We are going to look at three different ways to measure the total environmental impact of your packaging.

Raw Materials

For the sake of simplicity for this exercise, we will be comparing a glass bottle, a PET plastic bottle, and a paper bottle with a plastic liner. There are some really exciting innovations on the horizon we will discuss in a few months, from a completely recycled paper-pulp bottle to corn-derived bioplastics, but for now we will consider commonly available packaging solutions.  

First, let’s look at the cradle-to-grave material analysis. Glass is made from sand, which we have plenty of fortunately, but we are using it at a rate much quicker than the planet can replenish it. Removing sand for the production of glass can also lead to erosion and more devastating sea weather events in areas where sand is being removed. It is very highly recyclable, however, which means that almost all of the material can be reused when it is reprocessed and there isn’t much loss. 

Plastic is made from petroleum, which is non-renewable and finite on this planet. Obviously, there are a lot of environmental concerns with drilling and removing oil across the planet, from deep-water oil spills to high greenhouse gas emissions for removal and processing. Plastic is also downgraded when it is recycled, which means that only a portion of the material is reused and the quality is lower than it was before. 

Paper is made from mostly softwood coniferous trees in the United States. These are renewable resources and can be harvested responsibly with offset planting and sustainable forestry. Paper can be recycled with minimal loss and unlike plastic or glass, can also be composted or used in combustion with energy recovery. Currently, almost all of the commercially available paper packaging options also have a small amount of plastic in them,so that component has the issues above. 

Recycling Considerations

Another interesting way to look at materials is the follow-through of recycling of the average consumer. In the US, for instance, 33 percent of the glass that is produced is recycled, compared to only nine percent of plastic and 62 percent of paper goods. Paper and cardboard have the highest rate of recyclability, but don’t have the same material recovery rate as glass, which closes the gap a little bit. If a good portion of our material will end up in landfills (or, in the case of plastics, floating in waterways) it is also good to understand that it takes between three to six months for papers to break down, 450 to 1,000 years for plastics, and up to a million years for glass. For plastics floating in waterways, breakdown can have more harmful effects as fish and birds eat the plastics and die or bioaccumulate toxins. There is also more and more research on PFAS, microplastics, and other possibly harmful effects of the breakdown and bioaccumulation of plastic particulate matter in our ecosystem. 

The other issue in recyclability is dependent on weight. Because the density of glass is so much higher than plastic and paper, it costs a lot more per unit to transport. Recycling can be done as far away as Asia and South America, so the transportation costs can far outweigh the benefits received from recycling. Because of this, many municipalities and private companies are starting to shy away from glass recycling or looking at new facilities or local options to keep the price of the recycled glass above the transportation cost. Because of this, and a whole host of international factors, while paper has seen consistent increases in recycling amongst consumers in the US since that data was collected, plastic has remained fairly stagnant the last few years, and glass has actually trended negatively during that time according to the EPA. 

So, looking at recycling trends moving forward, it looks like paper is a clear winner of recyclability. Glass has the potential to be very efficient because of its incredibly high rate of recyclability without degradation, but there will have to be significant improvements on facilitation of recycling in the U.S. to get there. 

Net Carbon Impact

The last factor we can look at for a holistic view of packaging is the net carbon impact. A quick note before we get into the numbers: I pulled this data from multiple reputable studies for the net carbon impact of glass and plastic, but because the paper-based bottles are so new, the data was procured directly from Pulpex Limited, which manufactures Diageo’s upcoming paper line.

The first net carbon impact we will look at is how much CO2e (equivalent greenhouse gasses produced) to produce the packaging from raw materials. Per kilogram it takes about a third as much greenhouse gasses to produce glass than plastic. However, if you look at the per unit breakdown, you can create on average almost 40x the bottles with PET plastic per kilogram than with glass. So, once you balance these numbers on a per bottle basis, PET can be up to 80% more efficient. With the pulp-based paper bottles, Pulpex reported a 90% reduction in carbon emissions compared to glass. 

The next largest source of net greenhouse gas impact in your spirits that is not always considered is transportation. Obviously, the more your products weigh and the farther they travel, the larger your CO2e net total will be. There are many factors that change the specific numbers of net emissions, including the method of travel, the fuel source used, total distance traveled, and so forth, so we are going to look at the broad strokes. Because of the weight difference between glass and plastic, it is going to be much more efficient to transport plastic than glass as raw ingredients. The weight of paper products is comparable to plastic so, in terms of transport, they can be considered equivalent. You can also attribute that CO2e cost to the waste side as well, either to recycling plants or to landfills. 

There are ways to utilize glass and cut down on carbon content. Shipping bulk spirits in totes or tanks is a highly efficient way to transport with a lower net carbon impact than by shipping bottled products. Some distilleries transport their spirits to be distributed in distant markets in bulk and have the product bottled in glass on site. This can cut down on moving empty packaging around the world and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are also lightweight and less carbon intensive glass solutions that can also help with carbon impact and the cost associated with production.

There are some benefits and drawbacks to all of the different packaging solutions depending on what environmental issues are important to your distillery. The promise of paper-based packaging is strong, with lower emissions and better lifecycle analysis. With large distillery buy-in, it has the potential to have a high consumer correlation to quality as well, which can be a problem with PET bottles. Ultimately, one of the largest problems to overcome is the perceived value of glass vs. plastic to the consumer.Hopefully, paper products will provide an avenue to produce high quality, premium products that also utilize more environmentally friendly packaging.