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Returnable Glass: Fit for the Future?

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Returnable Glass: Fit for the Future?

The packaging market is growing every year, as global trade brings new international products into our homes and consumers look to new lifestyle trends like embracing vegan, dairy-free, or low-alcohol alternatives. At the same time, sustainability commitments that include reuse are now an integral part of many brands’ business models – and for the first time ever, there will also be reuse targets in EU legislation.

Glass, one of the most established packaging materials, is uniquely positioned to lead the way towards a more sustainable future for packaging, thanks to its reuse and recycling capacities.

That’s why our latest Live Q&A brought together Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Hartig from the Austrian Reuse Association and Evan Williams (Chief Commercial Officer at Vetropack) to delve into what sustainability means for the glass industry, and how the industry is innovating to address these concerns – from more lightweight packaging to expanding on recycling and reuse systems.

Glass packaging reuse, a local solution with broad potential

Discussion on sustainable packaging is becoming more and more complex, as educated consumers take a more holistic view of sustainability and policymakers look to limit packaging waste through new measures. To address these concerns, the glass industry is working with our supply chain to develop and advance alternative solutions that save on resources, such as reusable systems. Beverage industry giants like Coca-Cola HBC and PepsiCo have recently introduced new reuse targets, while the food and cosmetics sectors are shaping their own vision of reuse.

Glass is an endlessly reusable material. Endlessly recyclable glass containers are produced in a closed loop by reusing the same permanent material.

“We see refillable glass bottles as a complementary solution we offer our customers to address the wider goals of society in embracing circularity. Thanks to the health and sustainability properties of glass, its proven track record, no need for chemical recycling and the fact that there is no down-cycling with glass, reusable glass bottles are increasingly seen by customers as an alternative to other packaging materials.– Evan Williams, Chief Commercial Officer at Vetropack

All glass packaging is reusable in a closed loop system, either through a return and refill system or by recycling glass to become new bottles, jars, or flacons. As opposed to other materials, glass preserves 100% of its quality when reused, rather than being downcycled for other uses. And glass is the undisputed market leader in reusable packaging (data available upon request)[1].

Using reuse systems where they work best

Refill systems work best when the return loop is frequent, especially for single serve, high volume, and closed loop systems like those in the HoReCa industry – which is why beer, soft drinks, and water are already successfully using refill systems, unlike high-end whiskies or wines that may be consumed over time. In fact, refillable bottles already account for a fifth of the beer, cider, carbonates, and bottled water market. Worldwide, more than 45% of beer is consumed in refillable glass bottles.

Refillable bottles are not a one size-fits-all solution, but a great one for existing or new returnable business models where a standardized container can guarantee a large number of use trips. These systems work better locally, where there are short distances to be covered between producers, consumers, and reuse stations. For local markets, replacing one-way packaging with reusable packaging could reduce the environmental impact – while one-way glass packaging can better meet the needs for more customised offers to consumers or for products destined to cover longer distances. That’s how a tequila brought home from a Mexican holiday can find its way to a new life as a water bottle, perfume vial, or jam jar. And both options present opportunities for innovation, but also challenges for brand differentiation.

While every brand hopes to stand out in front of their customers with unique packaging designs, it may be necessary for brands to weigh their priorities. In Germany, which offers a developed recycling system, the potential for reuse is affected by low rates of standardization: for beer alone, over 100 different reusable bottles exist on the market. The more standardized the glass packaging, the easier the implementation of a reuse system at a local level.

On the other hand, for products that need to travel and cross borders, one-way glass packaging designed for recycling is the best option. For this, recycling schemes such as bottle banks or doorstep collection are already in place to supply the closed loop production of new containers, and are constantly being improved. The industry is looking to increase glass collection rates to 90% by 2030 – reaching an EU average for recycling of 80.1% in 2021, where the vast majority of the almost 12 million tonnes collected go back into new bottles and jars.

Echovai bottles: improving glass packaging’s weight and resistance

Today, there is a resurgence of innovation in the reuse space from all packaging and glass is playing its part – from Vetropack’s reusable milk bottles and yoghurt pots for Bergland Milch, to Verescence’s refillable Moon range for perfumes, to Verallia’s German scheme for refillable wine which covers crating, collection and washing. One challenge is to increase robustness, so fewer bottles break in industrial use or show signs of wear – and where thermal tempering can help make reusable bottles sturdier and less prone to scuffing. Glass resistance improves if both surfaces (i.e. the outside and inside) are cooled at the same rate – easy enough for windows, but a much bigger challenge for bottles.

That’s where Vetropack’s new returnable Echovai bottle, which won the 2023 Swiss Packaging Award in the Technology category, finds innovative solutions to this persistent issue. They achieved uniform cooling for 3D shaped glass objects, while also creating bottles that produce less emissions in their life cycle thanks to their supply chain efficiency. All of this was achieved by replacing the existing refillable pool of 33cl beer bottles from Mohrenbrauerei with the new Echovai bottles, which are 30% lighter.

“Echovai tempering is delivering on resistance and performance parameters. For the consumer, they have the convenience of lower weight and premium appearance with all the existing benefits of a refillable glass bottle.” – Evan Williams, Chief Commercial Officer at Vetropack

With the new 33cl reusable beer bottle set to be launched in the Austrian market in early 2024, plans to scale up production will allow them to license the technology to other manufacturers, too.

“Echovai’s innovation was the best solution, due to its small size, low weight, more cycles – meaning ecological sustainability – clear identification in the return vending machines comparted to existing one way long-neck bottles and consumer preference. It was a clear decision by the working group, that this bottle could be the standard 33cl reusable beer bottle in Austria.”  – Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Hartig, Austrian Reuse Association​

The journey towards creating a feasible and functional reuse system begins one step at a time. The glass container industry is already making strides in that direction, with the implementation of local return and reuse schemes which complement existing recycling models, so that businesses can choose the model that works best for their needs. And together with brands, the glass industry continues to work on innovative ways to balance brand recognition with the sustainability standards needed for Europe’s decarbonisation.


Did you learn anything about returnable glass and the recycling model? Do you think glass can step up to modern design and logistical challenges? Head over to LinkedIn and let us know. To keep up to date with the lates trends in the glass industry or our upcoming Q&As, don’t forget to follow our LinkedIn account.

[1] Market data from Euromonitor available at FEVE on request

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