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Calling Out Carbon Emissions in Wine

A new campaign focuses on reducing a key contributor to climate change

Janice Williams By November 15, 2021
wine bottles on a scale
Photo illustration by Pix

Opening a new bottle can feel like a ritual for some drinkers. Peel the seal, pop the cork, and anticipate the delicious liquid waiting inside. Pour the wine, take a drink, and welcome a moment of relaxation. Every sip is an invitation to experience one of the tiny wonders of the world.

It’s no wonder that climate change and the wine industry’s role in it is the last thing on anyone’s mind while enjoying a glass.

But the reality is that wine’s carbon footprint has indeed played a role in climate change, albeit a minuscule one compared to other industries. And one generator of carbon is transportation and packaging

On Oct. 31, the final day of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, British wine writer Aleesha Hansel issued a Change.org petition calling on the wine industry to address wine bottle weight more directly. 

“The production and use of heavy glass bottles, as well as the transportation of them, is the wine industry’s biggest contribution to carbon emissions. So it made sense to me to tackle that first,” says Hansel. 

The weight of glass

With over 32 billion bottles of wine produced annually, glass bottles make up roughly 29% of wine’s carbon footprint, according to a 2011 study by Wine Institute in California. It takes a lot of fossil fuel to make wine bottles, for starters. Then there’s recycling — or rather, the lack thereof — to consider. Hansel’s petition points out that only a shameful 25% of glass in the U.S. is recycled, a statistic revealed in an Environmental Protection Agency report released in December 2020. 

Wine bottles also factor in the carbon emissions generated from wine transportation, which is about 13%. The heavier the glass, the more fuel is used. Not to mention the fact that most of the wine bottles used by U.S. wineries have to travel to be filled up and packaged, before traveling on to shops and restaurants. China makes nearly 40% of the glass bottles U.S. wineries use for storing wine.

A call to action

Hansel’s petition calls for actionable small steps that can help significantly reduce wine’s carbon footprint, starting with producers including the weight of wine bottles on tech sheets.

“Knowledge is power, and with knowledge comes the ability to make informed choices. In the same way someone might want to choose a lower ABV wine, the percentage on the label gives them that ability. It also makes bottle weight part of the everyday conversation,” Hansel says.

The petition also asks wine critics and commentators to speak up about wine bottle weight and note the percentages in each review. 

It’s received support from several wine industry leaders, including renowned wine critic and author Jancis Robinson MW, who has spoken out about carbon emissions from wine bottles for years. Robinson has suggested numerous alternatives to wine packaging, including bioplastic bag-in-box and aluminum cans, and she is one of the first ever to include bottle weight in wine reviews.

“This has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by a figure that is too big for me to really fathom, but one that would be amazing to reach,” says Hansel. “The future of the wine industry is reliant on us changing our ways.”

“This has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by a figure that is too big for me to really fathom, but one that would be amazing to reach,” says Hansel. “The future of the wine industry is reliant on us changing our ways.”

How consumers can help 

Significantly reducing wine’s carbon footprint begins with production. However, there are some things wine lovers can take into consideration to help the cause.

One is to be aware that heavier bottles do not signal better quality wine. 

Shopping for locally-made wines is also a great help, especially since wines shipped west of the Mississippi River have a greater carbon footprint. 

But the easiest thing shoppers can do to play a part in the fight for change is to be more mindful of the bottles they’re picking up and seek out bottles produced by wineries that are actively reducing their impact by committing to sustainable practices. And most importantly, always recycle.