They call us consumers, but there are an awful lot of things that you buy but don’t consume. After you’ve finished a bottle of wine or a jar of antipasti, you’re left with a container that weighs around half of the weight of the original product. Is this an efficient delivery system for our food and drink?

Glassrite was a project within the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that aimed to reduce glass wastage, and carbon emissions.

glass half full

Have a look at this…

Is the glass half full, or half empty? If you’re an engineer, the right answer is that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. In a government-funded landscape that features plenty of talking shops but precious little in the the way of action, Glassrite stands out, offering (among other things) a tool to encourage those who buy glass containers to choose lightweight ones: it’s a simple online directory of producers, where you specify capacity, style, closure type, colour, etc., and then get to choose between the various suppliers, seeing the weight of the empty bottle or jar. Lighter bottles means less embodied material and energy, and additional energy saved in transportation.

So far, so good. Very good in fact: the Glassrite project reduced the amount of glass used in bottles by 27,048 tonnes, simply through promoting the use of lightweight ones. Additional savings came through increasing the recycled glass content in UK wine bottles by 44,295 tonnes, but they didn’t stop there.

(If you’re a “wine snob” you might want to stop reading, but I thought this was interesting…)

Why send wine bottles across oceans? Why not just send the wine? Eliminate all that faffing about with fragile, heavy glass bottles that don’t fill the space in a shipping container at all well, and let the importer worry about final presentation.

Bulk importation of wine became the goal, with bottling taking place close to market. That allows the importer to do all kinds of interesting new things with branding, and it also reduces the landed cost of the new, highly commoditised wine. (Just don’t tell the customer that their favourite wine wasn’t lovingly bottled at source, but crossed the oceans sloshing around inside a huge bladder…)

containerised bulk wine

Wine, and bladder… a match made in heaven?

If your small boutique vineyard can’t deliver wine by the bladder-load, palletised alternatives are available in 275 and 330 gallon sizes (1,041 or 1,249 litres). Of course, they occupy the same amount of container space when returned empty, which is a shame. Maybe we can export cider in return, or something.

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

The Glassrite project increased the bulk importation of wine by the equivalent of 190 million bottles; all bottled right here in the UK. By 2012 the South Africans were crying foul: it seems the practice had cost 700 jobs among people who formerly packaged wine, and there was talk of a retaliation with the bulk import of whisky. I can’t see that working myself… but it’s interesting to see how importers can drive down the price of a commodity in the name of reduced carbon emissions – causing job losses in the process.

I say let’s take things a bit further, and instead of bulk importation in shipping containers let’s put pipelines in place. A least-distance surface journey from Australia to the UK would be around 20,000 km, but you would only need to pump the wine gently such that it flows at a leisurely 1km per hour and it would have aged by a perfect 2 years by the time it arrives. (And since France is so much closer, Beaujolais Nouveau is no problem either.)

Obviously, pipes could have sections lined with oak, in order to yield the right level of tannins, for optimum flavour. (The oak sections of the pipe would be in places where it crosses land, for ease of replacement, since the oak would need to be renewed over time: you don’t get those flavours for free, you know!) For closer nations whose wine we consume, you’d simply vary the pumping rate to achieve the desired ageing.

Of course, you’d need one pipe for each variety, which is costly, but that’s a one-off setup cost. Think of all the drums, barrels and bottles that would be saved! Another regrettable cost is that at any given time (assuming a 25mm diameter pipe) you’ve got almost ten million litres of inventory tied up for two years… but that’s not much worse than sticking it in a bonded warehouse.

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem... you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers...

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem… you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers…

One hazard of the new wine pipeline is that of theft: unscrupulous people could steal some of the commodity as it crossed their land, and there is a precedent for this. In the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, beer was brewed and then brought into the house itself through an underground pipe. (Specifications: 75mm diameter, 323m length, gravity-fed.) During landscaping work in the early 20th century it was discovered that the gardeners had added a branch to the pipe where it crossed the Rose Garden, so they could take a little for themselves.

The audacity of those gardeners is today commemorated by the craft beer Gardener’s Tap – available from the Chatsworth farm shop.

Gardener’s Tap beer

Gardener’s Tap

Now, no doubt there are other challenges and hazards associated with the wine pipeline, – and also other possibilities. (Toothpaste on tap in the home? Tomato ketchup?) At this point, sadly, we had to abandon any further speculation because the pub was about to close.


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