Hitting the Bottle or Hitting the Box? The Debate Continues

The debate continues over hitting the bottle or hitting the box when it comes to drinking wine. We sought out an LCA that would help us understand the claims that Tetra Paks are better for our beloved environment than the traditional glass bottle. The folks at PRé Consultants provide a handy online LCA study search engine which brought us to this study commissioned by Tetra Pak and carried out by Franklin Associates in accordance with ISO standards for life cycle inventory. Results are summarized below but, Tetra Pak out-performs the glass and PET bottles in energy use and GHG emissions. The report evaluates three types of container systems for wine: paperboard containers, glass bottles, and PET bottles. The paperboard containers (which are composed of a laminate of paperboard, aluminum, and polyolefin resins) are manufactured by Tetra Pak and include the Tetra Brik™ and Tetra Prisma™. The secondary and tertiary packaging (such as corrugated boxes) used for transporting filled containers from the winery to a distribution center are also included.As we mentioned above this is an LCI. What does that mean, you ask?

A life cycle inventory (LCI) is an environmental profile that expresses environmental burdens from the perspective of energy consumption, solid waste generation, atmospheric emissions, and waterborne emissions.

The functional unit used to compare the container types is the delivery of 1000 L of wine. That's quite the party (that's 111 cases of bottled wine or 1332 — 750 mL bottles). According to this study we should be drinking our wine from Tetra Paks and not glass bottles if we are concerned about GHG emissions and energy requirements!! This also indicates that single-serving containers are worse (as we all should know) than multi-serving containers. However — it also means that if we do buy the wine in boxes then we need to RECYCLE said boxes. Otherwise we're not helping out. Check out the graph below which shows us the total energy and GHG emissions for the multi-serving wine containers for the US and Canada. You can see from shear numbers that the bottle uses much more energy and emits more GHGs than the Tetra Pak or PET options.


This LCI analysis includes the following five steps for each container system:
1. Production of the container materials, which includes all steps from the extraction of raw materials through the production of the component materials of the containers.
2. Fabrication of the container systems from their component materials.
3. Transportation of empty containers from the container producer to a winery.
4. Transportation of filled containers from the winery to a distribution center.
(The subsequent transportation from distribution center to retailer is not included in this analysis due to a lack of data as well as the assumption that such a transportation step is negligible in comparison to upstream transportation steps.)
5. Post-consumer disposal and recycling of container systems, including recycling, landfill, and combustion scenarios for the United States and Canada.


The above graph shows the total energy for each container type for both the US and Canada. The small variations per country are obviously attributed to the differences in the solid waste management breakdown for each. They point out that those do not significantly affect the energy results. Of the five life cycle phases included in the study (material production, container fabrication, transport to winery, distribution, and post-consumer waste management) it is the PRODUCTION OF CONTAINER MATERIALS that is the biggest contributor to the total energy use accounting for at least half of the total system energy. Energy from transportation didn't contribute to the majority of the total energy requirements, however (as the study says), "due to their relatively high weight, the glass bottles have significantly higher transportation requirements than the other systems. The transportation requirements of the paperboard containers and PET bottles range between 7 and 12 percent of total system energy, while the transportation requirements of the glass containers range between 22 and 27 percent of total system energy." Also note in this graph that single-serving containers are the worst choice in comparison to multi-serving containers - we all know this, but we will reiterate that point anyway.

When solid waste is compared on a by weight basis, obviously glass loses out, but when compared on a volume basis all the containers are about the same. In terms of GHG emissions, the glass bottles emit the most while the paperboards (Tetrapaks) emit the least due to their lower energy requirements during production. See graph below.


Overall, the study concludes that the paperboard systems have the lowest total energy as well as the lowest greenhouse gas emissions; the glass systems have the highest total energy as well as the highest greenhouse gas emissions. This is all despite the fact, or so the study claims, that Tetra Paks have a lower rate of recycling than wine bottles. Thus if they were effectively recycled these guys would outperform glass bottles.

This very complete 137 page report is available in the PRé search engine if you search for "wine" or "tetra pak." There you can see all of the graphs and results with their explanations. Read more about the debate on wine in boxes here and here.

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