Bottling it

People often consider themselves glass half full or glass half empty kinda folks. It’s a simple metaphor for understanding whether they are upbeat, optimistic and positive about life or whether they always expect something to go wrong, or essentially negative and downbeat.

But what happens when there is no glass? That seems a little silly because, of course, the glass in the metaphor is a drinking vessel, which every home has in abundance but my brain has been exercised about the use of glass in the alcoholic beverage industry of late.

It’s something I’ve been guilty of taking for granted and just never giving much attention to – which is remiss of me because it’s a crucial part of the liquor trade. What’s the point of having a fabulous whisky/gin/vintage red wine or crafty ale if you don’t have a container to get it to market in? And that’s exactly what has happened to South African wine, beer and spirit producers.

The pandemic didn’t just hit them hard in terms of their own production and sales, it hit the manufacturers of glass bottles hard too. Why do you think Savanna cider is in cans? At a time when the crisp, appley “it’s dry but you can drink it” beverage is booming in popularity and sales, its producers can’t bottle it …

The same holds true for the beer industry and wine producers. And it’s all well and good to say companies should look offshore – ship bottles in from elsewhere in the world. There’s a triple whammy problem with that. Firstly, the UK (for example) is also experiencing a shortage of glass beer bottles so they’re on the hunt for stock. China, one of the world’s biggest suppliers, has been in the grips of a massive lockdown and shutdown because of the pandemic so that avenue is not viable. Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected shipping drastically – primarily with regard to logistics but also hiking prices of fuel and thus impacting the cost of goods.

It’s a particularly nasty little cycle. And while on the subject of cycles, glass is pretty amazing stuff. It can be recycled again and again and again. The average returnable beer bottle is reused 21 times although some can go through 30 cycles before being smelted down – and used again. That’s why it’s so important that glass does indeed make it into the recycling chain rather than being tossed into landfill and wasted.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of glass recycling in the world – because there is a value attached to glass. Informal wastepreneurs get paid a certain amount per kilogram. Mass market consumers are sold beer at a discount when they return quart bottles in crates, for example. I came across some research done by an MBA student in 2019 that was fascinating. He detailed the entire process of returnable beer bottles and just how much effort is required to do so – but also why it makes economic sense for SA Breweries and others to take the trouble. It saves them millions of rands annually.

It made me think back to my childhood, when the children of the neighbourhood would scrounge around for old cooldrink bottles. We’d take them to the local café to get a few cents. Those five cent coins were then swiftly handed straight back to the local shopkeeper in exchange for sweets and chocolates!

Great example of the circular economy in action …