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In a few weeks I'll be hosting an event and will need to purchase wine for about 30 or 40 people. For myself and my partner, I typically purchase boxed wine as it stays fresh longer (assuming the wine has a greater footprint than the packaging).

But in this case I don't expect to have a lot left over, so I care more about the impact of the packaging.

There are a few trade-offs:

  • One box of wine holds the equivalent of four bottles, meaning less total waste.
  • Additionally, the box materials (cardboard and plastic) weigh less than glass, meaning less energy is needed for transportation.
  • But, glass is generally easier to separate, process, and re-sell in the recycling stream.
  • Materials in boxed wine packaging are sometimes co-mingled, making recycling harder.

To reduce environmental impact, should I purchase wine in boxes or bottles?

Assume that the wine itself is the same (organic and domestic) regardless of packaging.

  • I like this question; I wish someone wrote a good answer. I think an assumption that best efforts will be made by the consumer to recycle the waste is appropriate. This question is a good reason why products need carbon, water and pollution measures on them (dare to dream). This was the only useful information I found:procarton.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/… – FreeText Feb 26 at 18:27
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According to figures from Alko (the Finnish state-owned alcohol distributing organisation), producing packaging for a 1,5 L (~4 gallons) wine pouch creates 96 g (~3,3 ounces) of CO2e/L whereas a 0,75 L (~2 gallons) traditional glass bottle hits almost seven times that figure at 675 g (~23,8 ounces) of CO2e/L. Source

Additionally, the answer depends on your location. The differences of recycling options between countries are a significant factor and in some places you can even recycle the bags inside boxed wine (link in Finnish).

This information is based on a study that you can access here.

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I'm going to throw an answer out here, but surely there people with more knowledge out there. Please contribute as you can, and suggest corrections to any errors I make here. I have tried to detail my reasoning, but this answer is more hand-waving. For example, I can find no reliable sources to evaluate different types of pollution.

I am going to assume that all materials are going to make it into the recycling stream, since that seems to be the OP's intent. I'm also going to assume that the recycling stream is not being corrupted by "aspirational recycling" where the stream is corrupted by unrecyclable or poorly sorted materials. It affects all of the materials anyway, and again seems to be inline with the OP's intent. I'm also going to ignore the pollution from energy since it is variable depending on the source, but instead just talk about energy as is: more is worse, less is better. It's a good reason why it is necessary to electrify everything, and produce that electricity from renewable resources. (I realise this is a bit of a fudge, especially since paper mills are often located well away from energy sources and are instead located where the wood is, and therefore often burn fuels for energy since it's tough to locate solar panels in forests. It's a good reason to continue to research biofuels.)

I agree with the OP's evaluation of packaging per volume and weights as they relate to transportation costs. Square packages are more efficient in packaging by volume, which also is a plus for boxed wine's transportation costs due to volumes.

The boxed wine consists of a cardboard box and an inside "tetra-pak" plastic. In Ontario, Canada these tetra-paks are recyclable (and there are deposit refunds at The Beer Store). The bottle consists of glass; we'll ignore the metal cap with plastic insert (more fudging :)

Paper/cardboard comes from a renewable resource. These trees do not need to be old forest trees, but are usually replanted forests harvested specifically for paper/cardboard production. (I'll take renewable forest harvesting over drilling or mining every time.) Paper requires a lot of water and energy to produce, and produces toxic pollution (chlorine other chemicals - the paper pulp sludge is toxic). There's a reason pulp/paper mills exist next to lakes and rivers. Cardboard boxes can include a relatively high amount of recycled materials, especially when used as frame cardboard (i.e a wine box or a shipping box, vs. a box that holds food directly), and have good recyclablility (that's a word, right?). Recycling paper takes less energy than recycling glass, which requires a lot of heat.

Glass is made from sand, but only special sand that is typically harvested from lake and river beds. We're currently using more than is being regenerated, so we should count this as a non-renewable resource. Glass is indefinitely recyclable, unlike plastics which can only be recycled a few times. Glass can include (near?) 100% recycled materials; glass is made food safe (there's separation of contaminants in the production process). However, glass can only be recycled with like colours: clear for clear products, green for green products, etc. Glass cannot be recycled when broken (due to worker safety), but I'll assume they make it whole. Wine bottles are shipped in boxes with dividers. I think we can hand-wave ourselves to evaluating the cardboard use in bottle shipping is roughly equal to that of wine boxes and their shipping. I might even suggest that wine bottles use slightly more. Glass production produces less toxic pollution than paper or plastic (not counting energy sources). The sand harvesting, however, does significantly disrupt the environments from which it's sourced, which is a kind of pollution.

Plastic uses fossil fuels to make, which is obviously non-renewable, is damaging to the environment to extract, and takes energy to refine. Plastic takes significantly less energy to make than cardboard or glass. Plastics can only be recycled a few times (e.g. 3-4 cycles) before they break down too much to be viable for new materials. Unfortunately at that point they become waste. Worse they leak chemicals and break down into smaller micro-particles that can get into water sources and the food chain. Food safe plastics contain 0% recycled materials (probably because of concerns about the potential toxicity of the sources). There are numerous articles questioning the recyclability of tetra-paks as they consist of different thin layers of paper and plastic and metal. It's difficult for recyclers to separate these components, so the recyclability of these materials should be a big question mark. I think they should be considered as "less recyclable" than paper or glass, and even other plastics.

There is some hope of bio-plastics coming soon, but that's not what's generally being used today. These bio-plastics can be food-safe and are bio-degradable, so that would be a boon.

Cardboard and plastic produce toxic pollution in their construction. All take energy to be produced, although plastics take the least. All can be produced from recycled materials, but in reality food-safe plastics are made only from new plastics. Plastics have limited recyclability, due to poor separation between types of plastic and limited number of times it can be recycled (about 3-4 cycles). Tetra-paks are considered worse for recyclability than plastics.

Plastics tend to win in terms of production and shipping, but plastic is less reyclable than the other materials, and tetra-paks even worse. Plastics become unrecyclable waste even when they are recycled since they break down in the process. Worse, their waste pollutes the food chain. Plastics/tetra-paks lose in my evaluation if eco-friendliness for these reasons, and hence so does the wine box. If in the future the tetra-pak were made from bio-plastics that can decompose without toxic pollution, I think then the wine box would win over the glass bottle.

One option not mentioned here: wine can come in kegs now. :) You can get it served as draught in some places (wineries, bars). These kegs are reusable, which is always better than recycling.

References:

(Some of these references might have conflicts of interest, so add salt.)

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Coming from a sustainability point of view, Reuse is always better than Recycling except for plastics as they are better recycled than reused. Here the glass bottles can be used several times before recycling, in fact they can be used and reused indefinitely if they are not broken and are completely natural. This makes it better than both cardboard and plastic for storing any liquids.

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TL;DR: boxed

You should consider the possibility of using the packaging materials to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Cardboard is made from trees that have taken carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere. True, the cardboard manufacturing process releases some of this carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere, but much of it stays in the cardboard.

Plastic is made from oil. Oil comes underground from fossil fuel reserves. If it wasn't used to make plastic, it would be burnt in internal combustion engines.

By using oil and cardboard and burying them in a responsible landfill that doesn't contribute to the microplastics problem, you will:

  1. ensure the carbon in the plastic / oil will be returned underground from whence it came
  2. ensure some of the carbon dioxide trees sequestered will be buried underground instead of being released back to the carbon cycle

Now, I don't know if it's feasible everywhere to ensure your waste will be buried in a responsible landfill. Some landfills contribute to the microplastics problem; other locations burn the waste back to energy.

Even if you live in an area where waste is incinerated, you get at least dual use out of it: first, it is the wine packaging, then it will be burned to energy that most likely will create electricity. Much better than burning the oil directly to energy in engines, because that gives only single use of the source materials.

If you have the option to decide where your waste will end up being (for small amounts of waste you don't have the option), and are unwilling to consider landfills, consider a location where district heating is widely used. The efficiency of cogenerating electricity and heat is over 90%; the efficiency of generating just electricity is around 40%. Locations that need heating energy in winter can thus use more of the energy in the waste for useful purposes. So, you get triple use: first wine packaging, then heat and electricity. (I happen to live in an area with district heating, and much of it is cogenerated along with electricity from waste.)

Apart from that, if the wine bottles are reused, they will need to be cleaned in an industrial process before returning them to the second use to function as wine bottles again. This cleaning process may be environmentally harmful due to requiring chemicals. I certainly cannot prove it's more harmful than the plastic inside the cardboard packaging, but just something to consider.

Now, you won't solve climate change by drinking wine, of course! The packaging stores so little carbon (it's very lightweight) that is will have negligible impact. I would assume this light weight of the packaging suggests that it might be more wise to focus about the environmental impact of the contents and not of the packaging.

Also, you correctly noticed boxed wine stays fresh longer. Even if only some of it is left over, it probably matters more than the packaging.

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    I'm not seeing any analysis of the environmental impact of glass here, how does cardboard win without comparing it to anything? – Nuclear Hoagie Aug 29 '19 at 18:36
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    @Harper wine boxes are regular cardboard. The wine is contained in a plastic bag that’s completely removable – Maria Sep 15 '19 at 7:28
  • @Maria Oh, well, that's much better then. Trash the plastic, recycle the paper. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 15 '19 at 8:08
  • The wine box tetra packs (the plastic insides) are often recyclable, depending on your area. In Ontario, Canada you get a deposit back for them for this reason, just like wine bottles. – FreeText Feb 26 at 18:23
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Consider reuse. I used to prefer the bottles because I use them to make kombucha, but I've found an interesting way to reuse the bags that come in the boxes. I fill them with water and pack them into wall cavities to make a water wall. This is an extremely efficient way to maintain a steady temperature in living and growing areas which reduces the need for heating and cooling. I'm not sure what the building inspector would say about it, but I expect he would understand how this will nearly fire proof a wall, and perhaps he would be okay with it. They fit nicely between the studs and they also represent an emergency source of water if it were ever needed.

They also make great travel pillows if you blow them full of air. I bring extras and pass them out to others. If you pass them out on a plane, the recipient can also be handed the diagram and schematic that indicates how a simple ventilator can be constructed using the bag as an air bladder in the event they have no health insurance and prefer not to die as a result of covid-19 during certain shortages due to unspecified shortsightedness. People you meet on a plane might find this to be more than a bit advantageous considering their probable exposures.

Also, the boxes are the PERFECT size for 8 1/2 x 11 files. I use them all to organize important documents and archives. It's good for others if you are well organized at the point of your demise. Consider using them to organize your last will and testament. If I were to ever have too many of them I would compost them and they would thereafter become a source of food - not an unreasonable consideration considering the wide variety of possible futures we all could face.

Regardless of what you decide to do with them, please save them until the current crisis has passed. I'm willing to purchase them now and for the foreseeable future.

Upcycling, (according to wikipedia) also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality and environmental value. I find that trying to recycle things can be horribly wasteful when compared to upcycling.

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