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Sustainability within the glass industry – still work in progress?

Despite glass having a good ‘green’ reputation, Tim Croxson, COO of leading glass packaging company Croxsons – a family-owned business for nearly 145 years – argues that sustainability within the industry is still very much work in progress.

Efforts in the UK to reduce the amount of packaging consumed across all sectors – as detailed in the EU Packaging Waste Directive, more locally through the Government Waste Strategy, the ongoing activities of WRAP and its Courthauld Commitment, and Envirowise – have included reduced raw material consumption, a reduction in waste to landfill and associated carbon emission savings. And the glass industry, just like all other industries, has a responsibility to make its products as environmentally sound as possible even when it has a recognised head start as the packaging material with the strongest environmental credentials.

Recycling

Glass is 100% natural. Made from a combination of sand, soda ash and limestone, it is an inert material that does not react with the food and drink it carries, and is able to preserve taste, aroma and vitamins without any chemicals. It is 100% recyclable – when a glass bottle reaches the end of its life, it is melted down and re-introduced back into the manufacturing process as ‘cullet’ and used to produce new glass containers. This type of recycling is known as a ‘closed loop’ system, where waste material is turned back into its original form and can be repeated over and over again, even when it ends up outside the recycling stream; due to its natural composition and inability to decompose, it does not discharge harmful materials into the environment.

However, of the tonnes of cullet collected in the UK each year a large proportion is collected as mixed-colour, meaning that a lot of recycled glass ends up elsewhere rather than as new glass products. Clearly this is a missed opportunity for those authorities not operating colour-sort collections, as closed-loop processes offer the highest financial and environmental benefits and will help provide the UK with surplus cullet capacity. Without that capacity, manufacturers will continue to import a portion of their cullet requirements from abroad. This prevents a higher percentage of recycled glass being used in the manufacturing process which has significant environmental benefits.

To up-scale sustainability, glass collection and recycling in the UK requires a close partnership between local authorities and the glass industry, together with investment in infrastructure to collect, sort and distribute quality cullet to manufacturers.

Lightweighting or Rightweighting

Beyond the environmental arguments, there is a strong business case for packaging reduction due to the cost savings, process efficiencies, and marketing possibilities it offers to brand owners – this practice is known as ‘lightweighting’. Despite the popularity of the practice, lightweighting can be the wrong approach if it results in a container that has compromised the consumer’s experience. On this basis, the focus on lightweighting has morphed to the creation of a packaging efficiency model whereby containers could be designed lighter, but retain efficient qualities – this process being better known as rightweighting.

In September 2008, WRAP, in conjunction with GTS Environmental, published the results of their GlassRite project aimed at delivering significant benefits through the rightweighting of glass bottles, by working with beer, cider and spirits brand owners and their supply chain. The project, which ran from January 2007 to March 2008, successfully met and surpassed its target to remove 20,000 tonnes per year from the UK waste stream, and supported the development of a culture in which rightweighting (as opposed to pure lightweighting) became a central consideration in bottle re-design.

But is there still an industry focus on rightweighting in its original guise? The term rightweighting is used widely throughout the industry, but as a part of the overall sustainability message we are seeing it having more of a commercial focus. At Croxsons, we use the concept of a rightweight design when developing a new or renewing a mould set for a customer. There are always certain complexities as one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, but where we can improve on the design from a rightweighting perspective, we will. We work on the basis that by lightweighting the design initially, we will be able to find the rightweight during the design process. If the only aim is to get to as low a weight as possible, then unnecessary and unwarranted comprises have to be broached, including image, feel, overall quality etc. We believe that each brand and product has a sweet spot, and our job is to establish where that sits in terms of current manufacturing technology and cultural cues.

With our customers coming under pressure at consumer and retail level to be ahead of the game on sustainability issues, the emphasis we place on rightweighting is all part of our ‘customer journey’, providing them with the best design, the best price, the best quality and at the best weight, against the trade items that are currently available. And by doing ‘the right thing’ by rightweighting, our customers will have loyalties to the ethical approach and will want to work in partnership with us to augment their own sustainability strategy.

As an industry, yes we have a low carbon footprint, but stepping away from that and at a granular level, we need to look at the real progress glass is making against other forms of packaging in sustainability terms. From a recycling perspective, glass can be reused endlessly and in dealing with emissions, technology is playing a big part – innovation such as heat exchanges, which help to trap, filter and reduce the overall manufacturing impact on the environment, are positively influencing the industry’s sustainability drive. Compared to cans (aluminium) and PET, there is a compelling argument to say that glass is environmentally leading the way. Despite this, we still need to convince consumers that glass is best.

Clearly there are real opportunities within the glass industry to deliver a more cohesive and uniform approach to sustainability. Not only does it need better collaboration between government and business to effect recyclability efficiency, it also needs a much more co-ordinated and proactive approach to rightweighting, for rightweighting’s sake and without compromise.

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