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Recycling: path to the future

Recycling: path to the future

Jane Firstenfeld

Packaging has always been a big issue within the wine industry, never more so than today, when new packaging alternatives tempt creative marketers on a monthly basis. As with any consumable product, as much thought and investment goes into packaging as into the wine itself. But for every bottle in its case or shipper that’s sent out from every winery, each element of the final package was first delivered in packaging of its own. It adds up to literal mountains of solid waste, mountains no one wants in their backyard or community landfill.

People within and outside the wine community are concerned about solid waste disposal, and, just as blue recycling cans have become familiar fixtures on urban and suburban sidewalks, recycling has become a concern, even a mission, at many wineries. Recycling is a major component in the concept of sustainability.

As revealed in the provocative new California Wine Community Sustainability Report 2004, prepared by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a substantial percentage of California wineries has already adopted some recycling measures. As the report also shows, however, there is still room for improvement.

The report (available from Wine Institute) surveyed California wineries about their recycling practices. Of wineries that responded, 80% separate recyclable and nonrecyclable broken glass, and 56% also recycle unbroken bottles. Only 11% dispose of all glass in solid waste containers destined for landfills.

Cardboard, according to the report, “can best be reduced by reusing it for shipping or by working with suppliers to take it back,” and 68% of responding vintners recycle cardboard in a recycling container and are aware of the amount recycled and disposed of in other ways. But 28% still dispose of all cardboard as solid waste. Shrink wrap, plastic and other packaging require more complex identification and sorting procedures, and significantly fewer wineries take the trouble: 43% dispose of plastic in solid waste containers (e.g. garbage cans) and 45% dispose of other packaging in this way.

These numbers don’t look too bad, until you consider that there exist much higher standards of recycling, currently practiced by only a tiny percentage of wineries. To find out which producers are leading the way, I contacted John Garn, whose Sebastopol, Calif. company, Viewcraft, is “a management consulting firm that helps organizational leaders understand and leverage the value of context,” according to viewcraft.com. Garn put me in touch with members of his network, shared some of his own insights into the challenges of recycling and described some solutions he’s seen within the industry.

For example, “Gloria Ferrer partnered with an orchid grower in Petaluma to take their excess corks. These are a perfect medium for growing orchids,” he says. “Hampton Davis at Davis Bynum is using filter pads in his vineyard to suppress weeds. I believe he is also using cardboard as mulch in the gardens and in the vineyards.

“Clos du Bois is shredding paper and using it in their shipping department. Belvedere Winery (Healdsburg) made a big effort last year to reduce their solid waste …. They worked with their suppliers to get them to take back pallets, plastic trays and cardboard boxes.”

Tom Christensen, chief operating officer at Hambrecht Vineyards & Wineries, which owns Belvedere, Bradford Mountain and Jest Cellars, confirms that, “Belvedere Winery has long embraced the notion that we have an ethical obligation to be responsible stewards of our environment.” The company is currently looking into installing a solar power system, and has already implemented an impressive array of recycling practices for paper, plastic, aluminum, cardboard and glass through Sonoma County’s Waste Management Authority.

“We have both standard household blue cans and special dumpsters on site,” Christensen says. “We recycle capsule (polylam) boxes with (capsule supplier) Maverick at the end of every bottling. Pechiney also recycles their tin capsule trays and boxes. Any unuseable/open cork bags and cork samples are donated to Creative Reuse for pick-up a few times per year. They pass them on to school kids for art projects … we typically try to use or recycle older glass, labels and corks as much as possible, as opposed to returning them to the supplier.”

If this seems like an involved process, or rather, series of processes, it is. A program like Belvedere’s takes commitment from the very top.

“Ultimately, it is a company management decision based on write-offs/cost of recycling, plus a fundamental belief in minimizing waste,” Christensen explains. “While the immediate return on investment sometimes isn’t there, we do believe that there is a longer-term return. And our owner, Bill Hambrecht, is a long-term investor.”

It’s no surprise that Benziger Family Winery is also a resolute recycler: The Glen Ellen operation has gone beyond organic to biodynamic. In addition to pomace and landscape prunings, the winery recycles paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, metal and pallets, according to ranch manager Matt Atkinson. Every office and work location is supplied with blue recycling containers and there is a designated recycling center adjacent to the crush pad.

“As a company, we are committed to identifying and promoting the most environmentally safe and sustainable business and farming practices,” Atkinson states. “As such, to recycle whenever possible and use environmentally preferred materials is a top priority.”

Of the latter issue, Atkinson says, “We are in the review phase of issuing an environmentally preferred purchasing policy, that among other things will stress that purchased items and their packaging be recyclable.”

At present, Benziger’s cork, capsule and glass suppliers do take back packaging materials, Atkinson notes. The winery has an employee environmental committee, which makes decisions about what and how to recycle.

“Recycling is a team effort,” at Trinchero Family Estates, agrees J. Kevin LeMasters, operations general manager for the multi-facility, Napa Valley-based company. Trinchero recycles plastic, cardboard, glass bottles, label webbing, pallets and capsules. “This is a conscious effort by a committee of department heads,” he explains.

LeMasters notes gratefully that the company has sufficient space to store materials until it has enough to bale into bundles. “When enough bales are created, we have a recycler come and pick up a full load of mixed materials. All glass goes into a large dumpster (which is) recycled when full.”

He comments that, while most suppliers will not take materials back unless there is a manufacturing defect, “They are using reusable shipping containers, which they pick up from us upon making a delivery, such as glass pallets, cork boxes and label boxes.” LeMasters commended one of Trinchero’s tin capsule suppliers, Rivercap, which takes back unused materials.

Trinchero’s efforts have been recognized by the California Integrated Waste Management Board for five consecutive years, as a recipient of the Waste Reduction Awards Program WRAP award. The company is large enough to be able to handle one particularly sticky recycling issue, shrink wrap, which smaller producers do not use in sufficient quantities to generate recyclable bales.

John Garn cites Kendall-Jackson’s Skylane facility, which allows smaller neighboring wineries to use its compactor to bundle shrink wrap.

“This is one of the issues to work out. The smaller wineries generate the waste, but not at the volume that the recycling companies will pick it up …. We need more examples (like) K-J, assisting the smaller wineries to recycle material,” he stresses.

Tom Christensen at Belvedere agrees. “We hope to someday improve the recycling process during the bottling for wineries by focusing on the recycling of shrink wrap,” possibly by using a mobile baler for multiple wineries.

What’s In It For You?

Each of these winery sources is unequivocally enthusiastic about his company’s recycling programs, and optimistic that more and better practices will continue to evolve.

“It needs to be user-friendly and efficient to be successful long-term, and we try to streamline the process,” Christensen says. “It also seems that, slowly but surely, recycling is spreading, and new and improved opportunities arise …. Recycling is really a choice between doing the right thing today, or twice the clean-up tomorrow. We don’t own the earth. We are just the stewards.”

“We can see no disadvantage to recycling,” LeMasters adds. “There is an initial effort to set things up, but once it is up and running, it becomes part of everyone’s daily job … While there are costs inherent to setting up a proper recycling program, the rewards and benefits far outweigh the costs.”

LeMasters also notes, “The Internet has made it simple to check out many government and nongovernment entities that specialize in recycling,” and suggests starting with the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s Web site, ciwmb.ca.gov, for many helpful links.

Atkinson also recommends contacting your venders to “see what you can do together to recycle.”

And, if you need more than a moral incentive, consider Christensen’s closing words: “Think of the PR benefit of operating a responsible business–some day, it will matter …. It’s not entirely ‘tree-hugger’ talk. There is no doubt in our minds that organic farming practices result in better grapes. Better grapes make better wine. And in our world, it all comes down to better wine.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Does Recycling Need Retooling?

When responding to my query about Belvedere’s recycling program, Tom Christensen forwarded an e-mail he had just received from an acquaintance, Paul Palmer. Palmer hoped to recruit Christensen and others in the industry to join him in forming a recycling caucus.

Palmer has been involved in recycling for 30 years, since he founded Zero Waste Systems, dedicated to recycling chemicals. He recently completed a soon-to-be-published book on waste management, Getting to Zero Waste. Surprisingly, he no longer has faith that recycling as it is now practiced is the answer to the world’s waste generating woes.

In response to my mild-mannered inquiry, he shot back an e-mail, in which he took vehement issue with the whole recycling concept.

“It is unfortunate,” he wrote, “that the recycling community has allowed itself to be diverted down this path of marginal significance.” Palmer believes that recycling, in general, is a bone tossed out by the garbage industry, “to deflect attention from the real issue–eliminating waste and garbage generation everywhere and forever.”

He claims that the garbage industry is a multi-billion dollar Goliath that uses much of its revenue “to purchase the political process so that enormous social subsidies are directed towards garbage and dumps.”

Since my focus was on packaging, he targeted that issue specifically. “The essence of packaging is that it packages things. It is not a meaningless collection of paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass. When you destroy any high level article, such as a package, and reduce it to its component materials, you are destroying that which makes it valuable, and at the same time, that which was responsible for the lion’s share of the resources that went into its manufacture …. What is valuable in a bottle is its shape, its closing, its market recognition and its identification of it contents ….”

The user of the empty bottle, he points out, does not want a new bottle, but rather, another bottle full of wine.

Palmer contends that, “To embrace the accepted norms of recycling packaging (destruction down to materials) is to go along with a pattern of deception which enriches primarily the garbage industry and ensures that recycling will never grow to endanger their luxurious profits.”

Palmer is not alone in his quest for Zero Waste. The GrassRoots Recycling Network Web site explains the concept in detail, including the basic tenet of sustainability–commitment to the triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic performance standards. To learn more, visit grrn.org.

“Garbage” and “luxury” are rarely found in the same sentence, but then, considering the significant costs of producing and disposing of consumer packaging, Palmer may just have a point.

J.F.

RELATED ARTICLE: Recycling Resource Links

To learn more about what and how to recycle, visit these Web sites:

California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, sustainablewinegrowing.org.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board, ciwmb.ca.gov.

Keep America Beautiful, kab.org.

Business for Social Responsibility, bsr.org.

Grassroots Recycling Network, grrn.org.

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