Which Is Greener, Wine Bottle or Box? Depends on the Box

Boxed red wine on a white background.

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TreeHugger spares no expense or our livers in our search to find the greenest packaging for wine. After reading Ruben Anderson's article in Tyee, where he said "Do you really want to try to look your children in the eye and explain that they have to eat jellyfish gumbo because you couldn't resist that lovely imported shiraz?" I started looking for a greener, local alternative.

Tyler Colman, aka Dr. Vino, recently wrote in the New York Times about the merits of wine in boxes; I just assumed he was talking about Tetra-paks, which I am not fond of. In fact, he was talking about bigger boxes, a packaging system known as bag-n-box that is growing in popularity almost everywhere but North America. It holds three liters of wine, the same as four standard bottles, and feels like it weighs about as much as one and a half.

Jackson-Triggs is an Ontario winery that we have praised before for breaking the mold in architectural design, not building a tacky faux chateau winery but hiring a decent architect. They are not the greenest winery — that is probably still Stratus — but they make a good product. They claim that their "slimcasks "demonstrate our on-going commitment to minimize our environmental impact."

Environmental Benefits of Boxed Wine

A young man unpacks wine in a shop.

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  • 3L SlimCasks are equal to 4x750mL glass bottles, so there is less material used.
  • Reducing our environmental footprint - It takes 11 trucks to carry the same number of empty bottles as 1 truck of flattened 3L SlimCasks to our winery.
  • That represents an 11-fold reduction in fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions to ship the 3L SlimCasks.
  • There is less potential for breakage both in-store and at home.
  • Less energy is used to produce the cardboard and oxygen-proof inner bag than with the production of glass.

Jackson-Triggs makes no claim on its website that the unit is recyclable, like the Tetra-pak people do.

Bag-in-box wine packages are made by Smurfit Kappa, and are essentially a plastic bag with a spout welded on, inside a cardboard box. They claim that it can hold anything from "wine to motor oil".

Improved Quality of Bagged Wine

Red wine held by two people in glasses.

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According to Food Production Daily, Unlike bottles, which once opened allow air to contact the wine, the bag-in-box bag contracts due to gravity as the volume of wine decreases. Because the bag-in-box prevents the liquid inside from having any contact with the air on the outside, the quality of the taste of the product is retained and oxidation is prevented.

The wine used to go bad quickly as oxygen could penetrate the plastic, but better bags were developed. Now they are made of a "co-extruded ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) technology- a five-layer co-extrusion with EVOH sandwiched between two layers of polypropylene." That likely isn't recyclable, but cut off the valve end and it will probably make a damn fine sandwich bag. The box is cardboard and is clearly recyclable.

The Bagged Wine Market Is Growing

A red wine glass held in a hand with painted burgundy nails.

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Food Production Daily writes :"Bag-in-box packaging now has a 9 per cent share by value of France's wine market, about the same as the UK. The figures do not include use by restaurants and other food service sector businesses. Meanwhile the market penetration rate is up to 42 per cent in Norway, 33 per cent in Sweden, 25 per cent in Finland, and 12 per cent in Denmark, according to various statistics compiled by IRI France, ACNielsen Infoscan and TNS WorldPanel. In Australia, which was one of the first countries to use the packaging for wine, the market penetration is about 50 per cent. In the US the market penetration is six per cent. "

Why so low in America? Everyone evidently thinks it is only for plonk suitable for rubbies. Alan Dufrêne, a wine consultant, blames the industry. "Don't put low quality wine in bag-in-box packaging," Dufrêne told wine makers. "It will only reduce its appeal."

Is Bagged Wine the Most Sustainable?

A bulk wine station in France.

Jason / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

No- in France you can buy your wine en vrac- show up at a merchant or chateau with a plastic jug and have it filled by tap from a large vat. But I suspect that it might be even greener than washing and shipping and re-using wine bottles as Ruben proposed.

Of all the options available to us from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, this is probably the best. Given that I have to carry everything in by boat and the nearest bottle return depot is a half hour drive away, it is certainly the most convenient.

Beware of the "Cellared" Scam

Oak barrels in a winery.

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However I was not happy to find in the small print at the bottom of this so-called "local" wine that it says "Cellared in Canada from imported and domestic wines." This is a marketing scam to bring in tank containers full of cheap stuff from countries with "wine lakes" of excess production, and pass it off as local. One wine blogger wrote "That’s the dirty little secret being perpetuated on an unsuspecting public. Cellared in Canada wines could have very few Canadian-grown grapes in the bottle. In fact, they could have none at all. The only thing you know for sure is that the wine you’re holding in your hand was actually put into the bottle somewhere in Canada. The contents could be Aussie bulk wine, sell offs from southern France, tankers of grapes shipped up from Washington State or California. No wonder some Canadian Cabs taste like they’ve been grown in warm climates. That Merlot, if it is all Merlot, could come from anywhere – literally – in the world."

So here is another challenge- give us good, truly local wine in a three liter box. I suspect you will sell a lot of it, and you can proudly call it green.