Lauren Eads joins us again to talk all about sustainability in spirits, how packaging can make a difference, and where compromises might need to be made.
Right now, sustainability is the watchword for every organisation in the world. COP 26 wrapped just weeks ago and saw countless high-profile figures starkly outline how close we are to the brink of environmental disaster.
UK PM Boris Johnson warned that it was “one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now”, while Prince Charles said this is “literally the last-chance saloon” for the planet. British naturalist Sir David Attenborough was left questioning: “Is this how it is doomed to end – a tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”
Great focus has been placed on reducing plastics, which is necessary, but glass too comes with some complications. A 2020 study by the University of Southampton found that glass bottles are actually more damaging to the planet because they require more energy and natural resources to produce and recycle. The type of sand used to make new glass (and construction materials) is a finite resource – the world uses a lot of it, and it’s running low.
What can spirits producers do?
Production of a spirit itself needs to be sustainable, but packaging is the most visible marker of a producer’s commitment to sustainability. Not so long ago, the buzz words in packaging were ‘small batch’, ‘handcrafted’, ’artisan’. The spirits world went nuts for bottles with rustic aesthetics and handwritten typography – cues that speak of craftsmanship and authenticity. Eco-friendly packaging was a bonus, but not a necessity. Those qualities are still valued, but things are changing, says Kevin Smith, founder of design agency Stranger & Stranger, having received more briefs for ‘sustainable’ packaging this year than in the last 27 years combined.
“We began working on sustainability a long time ago, a passion project to assuage the guilt of being in such a carbon-heavy industry, but we couldn’t make anything stick because the consumer interest wasn’t really there,” he recalls. “What’s exciting is that at last, it might be. We did a paper wine bottle 10 years ago that died. We did a paper bottle for Bacardi recently which, given their power and range, might just make a difference.”
Pretty bottles with green hues and images of nature can convey a willingness to go green but can be disingenuous. We’ve moved beyond simple aesthetics. Now, the emphasis is on the packaging itself, and the impact it isn’t having on the planet.
Is it recyclable and recycled? What type of ink has been used? How heavy is the glass?
How can packaging fight climate change?
The vast majority of spirits producers use glass, which is fully recyclable. You might think that’s enough, but glass is heavy. Transporting large numbers of bottles across the globe can exude masses of carbon emissions. The first thing that producers should be doing is reducing the weight of glass and heavy bottles are being phased out by most producers. Diageo committed to a reduction in total package weight of 15% in 2020, and to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable. Glass isn’t going anywhere yet, but it can be used more responsibly – choose light.
What’s the alternative?
The difficulty for spirits producers has been finding an inert container that can safely store a spirit for some years without the risk of degradation. Cans and certain pouches that contain hard seltzers or RTD’s can be fully recyclable, lighter, and less damaging. They work well for fast-moving goods, but spirits need something sturdier.
Bacardi has already produced a plant-based fully biodegradable bottle using natural oils derived from seeds, including palm, canola, and soy. The bottle biodegrades after 18 months without leaving behind microplastics and is due to be rolled out in 2023. A paper bottle is also in the works, and the company has pledged to remove all single-use plastic from its gift packs and point-of-sale materials by 2023. It wants to be 100% plastic-free by 2030. But Bacardi’s bottle is just one of many prototypes.
Pernod Ricard unveiled its Absolut ‘paper’ bottle in January made from a mix of paper and recycled plastic, eliminating glass. A next-generation plastic-free version is already in the works. Diageo has created a 100% plastic-free, paper-based Johnnie Walker bottle (made from sustainably sourced wood) that is completely recyclable, with a specialised internal coating that doesn’t interact with the liquid. Its rollout is expected in 2023. Silent Pool Distillers created a fully recyclable paperboard bottle with a “food grade liner” with Frugalpac to house its Green Man Woodland Gin. It’s five times lighter than glass alternatives and has a carbon footprint six times lower than glass or PET plastic bottles.
Vegetable inks are another powerful tool. They are made from linseed (flax), castor, canola, safflower, soybeans, corn oil, or other vegetable-based oil, but soybean and linseed are the most common. Traditional ink is made from petroleum, yes, petrol. Vegetable inks are clearly better for the environment than those that rely on fossil fuels. But what you might not realise is that all paper goes through a de-inking process before it is recycled. It is much easier to remove vegetable ink than petroleum-based ink, which in some cases can cause the paper it’s printed on to be completely un-recyclable.
What’s the trade-off?
Can a bottle be environmentally friendly, fully compostable, or recyclable and look good? Is there a compromise to be struck?
“Of course,” says Shaw, “but that’s part of the creative challenge and we love it. You can use a pulp carton to great effect with embossing and vegetable inks. It stands out a mile from all the slick over-guilded boxes and goes straight on your compost heap.”
It might be harder to create an aesthetically pleasing environmentally-friendly bottle, but which is more important? And in any case, many producers have been successful in marrying the two.
The Isle of Wight’s Mermaid Gin unveiled a redesign of its bottle in 2019 made from sustainable, recyclable, and plastic-free materials. The mesmerizing bottle features sculpted scales designed to reflect and refract light, while also being 100% recyclable, printed with biodegradable inks, and featuring an all-natural cork with a wooden top and neck seal made from compostable corn and potato starch.
Everyone loves a slick, stylish bottle, but one that’s eco-friendly too? That’s the cherry on the top.