The U.S. wine industry estimates that Americans purchase more than 300 million cases of wine annually, but what happens to all those empty wine bottles?
With the EPA-estimated national recycling rate for wine bottles at only 30 percent, a new company in northern Calif. wants to go beyond recycling and promote reuse – by washing old wine bottles and selling them back to wineries.
Opening for business in March, Wine Bottle Renew collects empty bottles from winery tasting rooms, as well as bottles that would otherwise be discarded from manufacturers, such as overstock or extra bottles. The company does not accept bottles from consumers for reuse – a common practice in many European countries.
For Wine Bottle Renew to add post-consumer wine bottles to their inventory, the national wine industry would need to standardize its bottles into a set number of types, as they do in Europe, says Bill Dodd, a partner in the company and Napa County supervisor. Though that may not happen in the near future, Dodd sees the potential for bottle standardization and reuse regionally, such as on the West Coast or in California.
While Wine Bottle Renew might not be collecting wine bottles from your curbside recycling bin any time soon, Dodd says that there is a steady supply of pre-consumer glass that the company is saving from the landfill and reusing. And the environmental benefits of reuse are impressive, according to the company’s statistics.
“Sixty percent of wine’s carbon footprint comes just from making the bottle,” he says. “We reduce [a company’s glass manufacturing carbon footprint] by 95 percent.”
It’s not just the production of the bottles that uses resources and emits pollution – it’s also the transportation of the heavy material. Bottles for California wines may travel from another state or Mexico or as far away as China, Dodd says.
Can Wine Bottle Renew compete with these manufacturers of new wine bottles? The company thinks so.
Not only are wineries interested in the green marketing edge that Renew bottles can bring, Dodd says, but the reused bottles are actually 10-40 percent cheaper than new bottles.
“It’s a win-win. Our bottles are environmentally sound and economically sound,” Dodd says.
Glass markets have not always been so amenable to bottle reuse. Back in the 1990s, a few companies attempted to get into the bottle washing business, but couldn’t compete with the low price of virgin glass at the time. The companies eventually failed, facing other challenges like a lack of technology to de-label wine bottles – problems for which Wine Bottle Renew has found solutions, the company says.
To naysayers who question the cleanliness and safety of reused bottles, the company says its bottles are as clean as new ones, after going through a series of wash and rinse cycles for sterilization – a process approved by the California Department of Health Services.
In fact, Wine Bottle Renew says its bottles are cleaner than new, since their bottles are washed immediately before shipment to a winery. It is not uncommon for new wine bottles to be stored for a some time before shipment, collecting dirt and dust, Dodd says.
And it was actually a new, but dirty bottle contaminating his homemade wine that inspired home winemaker and company founder Bruce Stevens to look for other sources of wine bottles and research the European bottle washing and refilling system.
In its fourth month of business, Wine Bottle Renew has as many as 300,000 cases of bottles at their washing facility at any time, Dodd says. The company sells reused bottles to 100 wineries and only hopes to increase its customers in the coming months.