Glass beats glass: a snapshot or a sustainable trend?

In view of floating plastic carpets in the sea and demonstrations for environmental protection, more consumers are once again turning to returnable glass bottles. Many bottlers are following their customers’ behaviour and are thus playing a backward role. However, they do not do without disposable bottles and cans.

By Sigrun an der Heiden

Hans-Peter Kastner is a man of principle. The drinks dealer from Stuttgart-Vaihingen launched a spectacular campaign this summer: the family business, which itself sold hardly any disposable products, collected plastic bottles and beverage cans for six weeks. “Over 50 sacks of discounter waste came together,” reports the merchant. 10,400 bottles and cans ended up in the beverage retailer’s deposit machines – mainly products from Aldi, Lidl and Kaufland. While discounters, who produce the most plastic waste, do a good business with it, he counted, stored and disposed of their waste. Although the merchant receives a refund of the deposit from the clearing houses where he hands in the disposable waste, the deposit is not refunded. However, he remains sitting on the disposal costs – around 5 cents per bottle or can. “Then my decision was made. Either I quit, or plastic is out of my assortment,” says Kastner. In a letter to his customers on Facebook, Kastner announced that from 1 August he would no longer be selling drinks in disposable packaging and appealed to their ecological conscience: “Buy reusable instead of disposable. Reduce unnecessary plastic waste. Ensure local supply and thus sustainability.” The announcement was followed by action. The beverage cans have disappeared from the shelves. Disposable PET no longer exists. The retailer only had to sort out 2 percent of his assortment. “For all other products there are reusable alternatives made of glass,” says Kastner. He is now increasingly focusing on regional products in returnable glass bottles, short transport distances and refilling. His regular customers and many followers on Facebook strengthen his back. They praise his courage in listing drinks in disposable plastic and cans, which have so far accounted for 30 to 35 percent of the family business’s turnover. Kastner hopes that other retailers will follow his example and that consumers’ growing environmental awareness will also be reflected in the contents of their shopping trolleys. On his price tags, he now indicates the bottling location of the beverage as well as the transport route in kilometres, in order to make it easier for the customer to make a purchase decision. Water, juices, sodas and beers that are transported in trucks for a maximum of 125 kilometres are awarded a regional seal.

Reusable glass bottles celebrate comeback

Glass as packaging for mineral water and soft drinks is currently celebrating a comeback. After the bottlers switched to the lighter plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) a few years ago, they are now reversing the roll and investing again in glass. “For two years now, there has been a trend towards returnable glass bottles in the mineral water sector. Many mineral springs have revitalised their containers and introduced new crates,” says Dirk Reinsberg, Managing Director of the Federal Association of German Beverage Wholesalers since August. Leaner, lighter pool bottles from the Genossenschaft Deutscher Brunnen (GDB) have also been on the market since 2017. “Consumers are more concerned with beverage packaging and are also prepared to pay a higher price for high-quality reusable packaging,” Reinsberg is pleased about the development.

The market leader, Gerolsteiner Brunnen GmbH & Co. KG, the individually designed 1.0-litre glass bottle has been the growth driver for years: in 2018 sales rose by more than 15 percent compared to the previous year. For the current year Roel Annega, as Chairman of the Management Board responsible for Strategy, Marketing, Sales and International, expects even stronger growth. The producer from the Vulkaneifel region therefore continues to focus on glass and has launched a new 0.75-litre returnable bottle in a 12-bottle crate. Instead of GDB pool bottles, Gerolsteiner is once again relying on its own glass bottles, which are gradually replacing the 0.7 and 0.75 litre returnable containers previously used. “Many quality-conscious consumers and brand users find glass to be of higher quality in terms of appearance and feel,” says Annega, explaining the trend. “In addition, the glass bottle is considered by many to be more sustainable. “I’ve seen a packaging solution.”

More soft drinks in glass bottles

Industry giant Coca-Cola has also recognized the importance of the topic for the German market. “The demand for beverages in glass bottles has risen by around 4 percent compared to the previous year in relation to our entire range of beverages in Germany,” says Uwe Kleinert, Head of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at Coca-Cola GmbH. “In the soft drink category alone, the figure is around 5 percent higher. His explanation: “Many consumers prefer to drink their Coca-Cola from a glass bottle. The company therefore also offers its soft drinks in returnable glass in various sizes. Even the 1-litre glass bottle that existed in the 1980s is back on the market. The industry giant is expanding its range: “We want to introduce Vio in returnable glass bottles for retailers,” explains Kleinert. “This already exists in the gastronomy sector. In addition to our Vio spritzers, we fill Honest Organic Tea and the new Honest Organic Lemonade in Germany exclusively in returnable glass bottles,” emphasizes Kleinert. Honest Organic Tea is sold worldwide in PET disposable containers.

German glass manufacturers are also noticing the turnaround in the market. “Ten years ago, sweet drinks and water were hardly ever bottled in glass bottles,” recalls Nikolaus Wiegand. “From a low level, demand has now grown extremely”, explains the managing director of Wiegand-Glas in Steinbach im Wald. The company produces 2.8 billion glass units per year. 90 percent of these are beverage bottles. The container glass manufacturer with four locations in Bavaria and Thuringia does not assume a short hype, but expects the demand to increase further. “Sustainability plays a major role in this,” says Wiegand. It is problematic that the glassworks can no longer produce at present. “The supply is relatively rigid because capacities cannot be ramped up so quickly,” he explains. A glass melting tank is renewed every 10 to 12 years. Wiegand-Glas recently put a larger furnace into operation and is building up further capacities.

Reusable quota still clearly too low

Does the increased environmental awareness of consumers make the returnable glass bottle socially acceptable again? Gerhard Kotschik would like to believe this, but the trend has not yet been reflected in the figures. “There are no major changes in the market for beverage packaging,” reports the packaging expert at the Federal Environment Agency. The authority is currently collecting the current figures. “The returnable packaging quota for 2017 will settle at around 44 percent again,” he already knows that much. However, the Packaging Act, which has been in force since January, stipulates a quota of 70 percent. Environmentalists consider the regulations to be a toothless tiger because they do not provide for any concrete sanctions for manufacturers if the quota is missed again. Kotschik also expects “no major upheavals on the market” as a result of the new law. For years, the Federal Environment Agency has recommended that consumers buy their beverages regionally and in PET or returnable glass bottles in order to avoid waste and keep environmental pollution to a minimum. However, the authority’s last own life cycle assessment, which examines the environmental impact of packaging over its entire life cycle – from raw material extraction through production to recycling or disposal – dates from 2002. Since then, the beverage industry has been left to prove that its packaging has become more environmentally friendly. Most of them then call Benedikt Kauertz. He conducts research at the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) and has been involved in all important studies in recent years. There are no simple, blanket answers for the scientist, because life cycle assessments are highly complex. The results also only apply to the respective beverage segment, “because not every product can be filled into every packaging,” explains the head of the Industry and Products department.

The Federal Environment Agency has specified exactly how life cycle assessments are to be drawn up, which data are to be collected and which calculation methods are to be used. In addition to the packaging material (glass, plastic, aluminium, tinplate, composite), the quantity of raw materials used and secondary material obtained from recycling, energy consumption during production, filling and recycling, the transport routes also play a decisive role. How long is the filled product on its way to the consumer? How many kilometres do bottles and cans come together when they are collected, sorted and recycled or transported to the waste incineration plant? Kauertz is looking into the question of where the energy used comes from – from coal or renewables – and whether the plants use energy recovery. The less material I need for packaging, the better the eco-balance,” the scientist explains. “A light bottle has one advantage over a heavier bottle.” In the returnable system, the number of cycles is decisive: “The more frequently the bottle is refilled, the lower the material consumption in production.

Life cycle assessments are rarely meaningful

According to a Deloitte study from 2013, the market-leading pool bottle for beer is filled 42 times on average, the two most important GDB pool bottles for mineral water and glass soft drinks 38 and 44 times respectively. On the other hand, the glass containers, weighing around 500 grams, are considerably heavier than

their competitors made of plastic. A returnable PET bottle weighs around 60 grams, the disposable bottle just under 30 grams. The eco-balance of glass is therefore not automatically better than that of plastic, especially if individual glass bottles are re-filled over long distances to the source and are not exchanged like pool bottles. “Optimized, lightweight non-refillable PET bottles with a high recycled glass content are in some cases equivalent to or better than returnable glass bottles,” says Kauertz. “But they can hardly be found on supermarket shelves,” he admits. The bottles of all manufacturers so far contain an average of 28 percent recycled PET (rPET), the majority of which is new plastic made from crude oil.

Major manufacturers like Coca-Cola are working hard to improve their packaging and reuse materials. However, this is of little help to consumers who want to shop in an environmentally conscious manner. “Life cycle assessments reflect average German conditions,” explains Kauertz. “You can’t buy this packaging in a supermarket like this.” Therefore no purchase recommendation could be derived from the results. Criticism of the recently published life cycle assessment for the beverage segments milk, juice and nectar is therefore not justified. Here the beverage carton had won the race. In the case of milk packaging, it is superior to the glass returnable system and PET disposable. Since there are only a few manufacturers who bottle milk, the long transport distances had a negative effect. For fruit juices, the 1.5-litre beverage carton had the smallest ecological footprint, followed by the 1-litre carton and the 1-litre returnable glass bottle, which IFEU classified as equivalent. “Of course, the result does not apply to exclusively regional refillable bottlers,” Kauertz clarifies. “Their life cycle assessment would be better. The plastic bottles failed in this segment because they consist of a composite of polyethylene and polyamide, which makes recycling more difficult. They usually end up in the incinerator.

All beverage packaging manufacturers and their associations agree that their packaging has become more environmentally friendly. Bottles and cans are becoming lighter, production processes more efficient and the recycling rate for PET in the deposit system is now over 97 percent, as the recycling cycle is almost complete. The Beverage Can Forum, which supports the communication of the major industry players Ardagh Group, Ball Beverage Packing Europe and Crown Packaging Europe per can, even puts a very high recycling rate of 99.1 percent in the field. Metal and above all aluminium can be reused almost indefinitely in the sense of a recycling economy. “Also from a recycled lampshade or bicycle frame

can be used to produce a beverage can,” says Stephan Rösgen, Managing Director of the Forum. There is little to say about how well or poorly a can made of aluminium or tinplate performs compared to other packaging. The last life cycle assessment for the German market dates back to 2010, when the can failed. Environmentalists are critical of the fact that beverages in cans are now available on supermarket shelves even in small fill sizes of 150 ml. Too much packaging for too little content. This is of little interest to the consumer. The can is in demand in the to-go sector because it is easy to cool. Germans consumed 3.51 billion cans in 2018 – an increase of a good 23 percent over the previous year. The can’s market share for beer is 7.2 percent. “Well-known breweries now have their own filling systems for cans and discounters list the cans,” reports Rösgen. “Aldi, Lidl and Co not only market their own brands as canned beers, but also typical TV beers at very aggressive prices,” says the representative of the beverage wholesaler Reinsberg, explaining the growth.

In the USA, major manufacturers such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are also planning to sell water in cans. At the end of June, PepsiCo announced that it would no longer offer its sparkling mineral water of the Aquafina brand in plastic bottles, but in aluminium cans to save plastic waste. Coca-Cola also announced that it would market its Dasani brand water in aluminium cans, initially in the northeast of the United States and in other regions by 2020. Uwe Kleinert cannot imagine that Coca-Cola would bring water in cans to the market in this country. “Some customers like the can as packaging for soft drinks, which is why we offer it,” explains the Sustainability Manager. “Their share, however, is low at less than 5 percent. In the regionally well-positioned German mineral water market with its 200 well companies, the can is also likely to have a hard time.

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