Waste: “To use, consume, spend, or expend thoughtlessly or carelessly…An unusable or unwanted substance or material.” (American Heritage Dictionary).
On a finite planet with an increasing population, wasting something will eventually mean that down the road, something will be unavailable to others. Sustainability on a crowded planet calls for reducing waste towards zero. We often think of waste in terms of what we send to a landfill. Is everything that we put on the curb truly, in light of the definition above, “unusable or unwanted”? It would seem when we make that decision to put it on the curb we know we don’t want it or plan to reuse it, but might others who follow after we have scoured our landscapes want that which we now judge unusable or unwanted?
Let me pick one example where many of us are guilty: wine. No, not the remnants of the fluid in the bottom of the bottle. The bottle itself. Michigan residents consume an average of 7.6 liters of vino per year, roughly 35 bottles each. Together we empty an estimated 250 million bottles a year. Since there is no formal deposit program for wine bottles, unlike carbonated beverages, most of these end up in a landfill. Recycling green glass, the predominant color of wine bottles was a challenge until recently. Now both Lansing and East Lansing accept all colors of bottles in their curbside recycling programs.
Now, wine bottles even when empty are not light. A medium weight empty wine bottle weighs in at 1.4 pounds, but some, especially those holding carbonated wine, are much heavier. It takes an enormous amount of energy to make a glass bottle as temperatures between 2600-2800 degrees Fahrenheit are required. An EPA Life Cycle Assessment found that the production of a ton of virgin glass produces 0.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E) gases. There are some savings in using recycled glass, but the typical amount currently quoted in wine bottles is only 5% and rarely ever exceeds 30% recycled content.
Research has shown that 50% of the CO2 emissions of a bottle of wine are tied directly to the bottle’s manufacture. A ton of glass wine bottles would add up to roughly 1,400 bottles. Multiplying out the number of bottles we consume here in Michigan, we are now talking 107,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2E). Some wineries more focused on sustainability, like Fetzer Vineyards, made a major transition to lighter bottles nearly a decade ago, lowering their carbon emissions by 14 %. Switching to lighter glass not only reduces the carbon footprint, it reduces both shipping and purchasing costs by as much as 38%, according to a report in Wine Business Monthly.
Recycling glass bottles can cut CO2 emissions by up to 20 % over virgin bottle production. In California, our largest wine-producing state, 85 % of bottles with deposits (beer, soda) are recycled but only 19% of non-deposit bottles. Nationally, at most only 18% of wine and liquor bottles are recycled. The bigger environmental savings, however, would come from reusing the bottles. A wine bottle reuse firm was launched in California in 2010 but ended up folding a year later due to a combination of equipment failures evidently triggered by the extremely varied type of wine bottles. The company had determined they could reduce the carbon footprint by 95 %. That figure was in line with an earlier study that reported a 93 % reduction in energy In reusing, washing and sterilizing glass bottles. Unfortunately, the equipment as designed for washing and sanitizing couldn’t handle the estimated 500 different bottle styles.
Michigan wineries produce 2.3 million gallons of wine a year, roughly ten million bottles. Of course, as stated above we consume way more wine than that. Seems like we should be able to find a way to retrieve some of those and get them to our local wineries for reuse. If we could refill half of the wine bottles produced in Michigan we could save about 2,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. In the process we could create local jobs in collecting, cleaning, and delivery. Wineries could market themselves as ‘greener’ by reducing their CO2 impacts in half! And we winos could feel a little better about the juice we enjoy.
Look for future ventures into other waste reduction arenas - food and energy.