Wine Institute, where are you? (A rant)
When will California wine give up its addiction to crack, oops, I mean Styrofoam?
For an industry whose every press release touts something green/organic/biodynamic and environmentally-friendly, whose representatives are usually healthy and tanned and wouldn’t dream of polluting anything, who themselves probably recycle, there’s something schizy, if not outright hypocritical, about the widespread use of polystyrene packaging for shipping wine.
You know polystyrene by its trade name, Styrofoam. It’s that bulky white stuff microwaves and CD players come packaged in. If you have a problem getting rid of a few chunks of it, try multiplying that by the tens of millions of pieces that wine is shipped in.
It’s the wine industry’s dirty little secret.
Styrofoam is awful stuff for the environment and for us. Most curbside recycling companies won’t accept it because it’s bulky and fills up landfills. The processes both of making polystyrene or burning it in waste dumps pollute the air and create large amounts of liquid, gas and solid waste. Styrene, its active ingredient, is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. The ill effects of chronic exposure are well-documented. If that’s not bad enough, Styrofoam is made with petroleum, and its manufacture releases hydrocarbons into the air, causing pollution and playing havoc with ozone levels. Styrofoam is often dumped into the environment as litter. When it breaks into little pieces, they can choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
There are non-damaging, ecological, truly recyclable alternatives to this stuff. It’s not my job to recommend any particular products, but suffice it to say the industry knows what they are, and of tests suggesting they’re as effective as Styrofoam.
The Wine Institute — the industry’s leading trade association, a powerhouse not only in California but in Washington, D.C. — has the power to do something about this situation. Wine Institute has long been criticized as a tool of big wineries, a charge that may be more in the perception than in actuality; but perception is reality. Politically, Wine Institute would do it itself a favor by coming out in favor of something the big wineries are perceived not to like.
When John DeLuca, who fought and won many battles, led Wine Institute, he declined to take styrofoam up as a cause. Both he and his successor, Robert Koch, were and are well aware of the contradictions of a pro-styrofoam policy. But we all know more about styrofoam’s toxicity than we did ten years ago. Mr. Koch’s tenure so far has been remarkably devoid of conspicuous accomplishment. He could do worse than to vow to push styrofoam out of the California wine industry. In one stroke, he would burnish Wine Institute’s green image, and send a signal that he is not entirely the captive of big donors — that he is, in other words, willing to put his money where his mouth is.
PS: Check out my Wine Enthusiast blog.