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Wine Institute, where are you? (A rant)

21 comments

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.

  1. Go, Steve!

  2. What annoys me further is that living in Santa Rosa, I still can’t get anyone to take them from me…so no second use. Just how ridiculous is this?

    A few wineries, like Calera, use all cardboard shippers (i.e., no styrofoam).

  3. Good for Calera and good for everyone who uses cardboard. I just got a big shipment from Gallo and it was all cardboard. But I’d estimate that 75-80 percent of the 5,000 wines I’m reviewing a year are sent in Styrofoam, which is why I call it an addiction.

  4. I get lots of shipments in various containers as well. In styro’s defenese, it seems the best suited to keep wines safe from extreme temperatures. I have received shipments in cardboard where wine had leaked through the capsules — a sign that the wine got overheated. Breakage is also more likely in cardboard in my experience — a sentiment echoed by one local retailer near me that avoids shipping in cardboard. I recycle my shippers by simply bringing my empty packing materials to this retailer, who is obviously thrilled as well. I would guess the original materials could/should be reused multiple times.

  5. JD in Napa says:

    I’ve started sending notes to my list/club wineries. If they ship in cardboard, they get a “thank you” note. If they ship in styrofoam, I ask them to please use cardboard next time. I also ask that they not use oversize/weight bottles. Every little bit helps (I hope).

  6. JD,
    Don’t get me started on oversized/weight bottles! Have you ever tried to wrestle one of them out of a styrofoam hole and it wouldn’t come out? And then there are those waxy tops that are impossible to open.

  7. So who is going to take responsibility when wine shipped in a cardbord or fiber shipper is ruined in transit, either by damage from improper packaging or temperature-related issues? No one in the wine industry likes using stryofoam but there are no good alternatives right now. Until a product comes out that is environmentally friendly and protects the product, then I doubt very many wineries will switch away from styrofoam. Wineries should be doing more to re-use styrofoam from consumers (two uses is usually max depending on length of transit)- that should become an industry initiative. But, it is unfair to say the industry isn’t responsive if there are no feasible alternatives.

  8. lds, all I know is that (a) lots of wineries no longer use styrofoam and (b) the manufacturers of alternative packaging say their products are just as good as styrofoam. I believe in our capitalistic system if there is enough demand for alternatives to styrofoam, people will invent new products. I get a lot of wine sent to me and the # of broken bottles is approximately 1 out of 1,000. As for heat, anyone who sends wine out before checking the 5 day forecast is asking for trouble. If a heat wave is on the way — wait a week!

  9. Morton Leslie says:

    You need a natural born devils advocate and I am happy to volunteer. Let me just say I think there are more important environmental issues than worrying about styrofoam wine shipping containers. I don’t think many animals are choking on wine shippers (it’s those damn white peanuts) and I, for one, use the shippers over and over. The decades ago predictions of running out of landfills never materialized and now our concerns are carbon emissions. While recycling glass and aluminum are profitable ventures environmentally:paper and cardboard recycling only is profitable under limited circumstances. Paper has become a renewable resource so we aren’t losing forests to paper, but card board itself is harmful to the environment. Cardboard takes a lot of paper and oil to make and also produces more Co2 emissions than styrofoam production. As it breaks down greenhouse gas is emitted. Do a rural road cleanup some day and you will be surprised at the discarded cardboard you collect. Contrary to what you suggest polystyrene is now being recycled profitably. And if you are worried about possible carcinogens on the EPA list don’t look too closely at wine itself.
    Usually we just look at the end of life for packaging and not the whole product cycle. Given the favorable carbon emissions, better insulation, recycling, and the better breakage protection, I wouldn’t do a Jancis and create a wall of shame over styrofoam, particularly knowing the carbon in it is sequestered for a couple hundred years.
    How’s that?

  10. Morton, where I majorly differ with you is “polystyrene is now being recycled profitably.” Where I live (Oakland) the recycling company will not take it. Nor will the garbage people (Waste Management). The recycling people will only take peanuts, and that’s not what I’m talking about. I was told by my recycling company and Waste Management that very few companies will accept bulk-extruded polystyrene. It costs too much for the recyclers to break it down. Having said that, I did work out a deal with my recycler: They will now take the stuff from me, but at a very costly premium. But I think most people are not in a position to pay to have their styrofoam hauled away, which is why there’s so much of it littered all over the place. Look, styrofoam may not be the biggest problem in the world. But every part of the puzzle counts, and all I’m saying is that WI and the industry are looking like they’re trying to have it both ways.

  11. We are wrestling with this very issue. We’ve moved to pulp for the cooler months and for those that request it, such as the S.F. Chronicle. I will definitely send wine to Steve in pulp in the future. Others have said styrofoam has better insulation capability and its manufacture is more environmentally friendly. Can you share the souces of this information? I’d like to review it to determine the best alternative. My wish is for an economical, temperature-controlled shipping service for wine. It happens for perishable food items. Maybe someday…

  12. Hi Brad, I just can’t be put in the position of doing technical research for wineries, much less recommend particular vendors. This is where I think Wine Institute could be useful, with their vast resources. Good luck in your quest to move beyond Styrofoam.

  13. Your comments about Wine Institute and perception that we have failed to take up your cause on Styrofoam and have fallen short on the much broader (and important) issues of environmental action and industry accomplishment are way off track.

    Steve, you clearly have not been following the amazing progress that California wineries and vineyards have made since the introduction by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) of the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing in 2002.

    It’s obvious that you care deeply about this issue and want to do your part but your criticism is misdirected.

    Starting with the issue of Styrofoam… Wine Institute has taken action to increase the awareness and use of recyclable packaging in the wine industry.

    • Two Chapters in the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing workbook focus on packaging. Environmentally Preferred Purchasing provides guidelines on attributes and guiding principles for purchasing decisions, covering packaging both from suppliers and to customers. Another chapter, Solid Waste Reduction and Management, addresses packaging as well, including recyclable packaging.
    • As a part of our membership affinity program with FedEx, we have worked to include alternatives to Styrofoam on their list of approved shipping materials. Additionally, they are working with other industry partners in efforts to develop packaging that is environmentally friendly while providing a more temperature controlled package – an issue that has apparently contributed to the ongoing use of Styrofoam by some wineries.
    • We have showcased vendors that offer environmentally-friendly packaging at more than a dozen member workshops on direct shipping around the state geared to tasting room managers and directors responsible for shipping decisions.
    • We’ve worked with international partners to develop the industry’s most comprehensive greenhouse gas accounting protocol and calculator that measures the carbon footprints of winery and vineyard operations of all sizes, including packaging. (See http://www.wineinstitute.org/ghgprotocol.)

    We believe that most wineries, large and small, would prefer to use recycled materials if they are confident that the materials meet their shipping standards, and, as you point out, more and more are doing so. We will continue to encourage this trend and share news of new developments at future workshops and industry events.

    Also, we have communicated to our 1000 winery members that you, and several other writers, do not accept Styrofoam containers. It’s unfortunate that some wineries continue to send them to you. However, while Wine Institute can and does play an important role in promoting sustainable practices and disseminating information, we do not dictate business decisions to our members.

    Looking at the big picture on environmental issues, California has the most advanced, rigorous, measurable commitment to sustainable practices of any wine region in the world. Now in its sixth year, more than 1,300 California vintners and growers, representing 45% of the state’s wine production and 61% of the state’s vineyard acreage, have self-assessed their practices using the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook. Over 5,000 winegrowers have attended workshops that address topics such as energy efficiency, integrated pest management, and air and water quality. Our 2004 and 2006 statewide reports published results of our efforts, setting benchmarks and targets, with the next major report to be published in 2009. We are also at work on a verification process for the Sustainable Winegrowing Program which will further validate California vintners and growers’ efforts to protect the environment and their communities.

    Under the leadership of Bobby Koch, Wine Institute has been able to work with CAWG, regional associations and other partners to advance sustainable winegrowing in a huge, diverse and varied industry – a feat that no other state or worldwide wine region, and few industries, has been able to accomplish.

    Some other accomplishments under Bobby’s leadership that you’ve missed:

    • Membership has almost doubled since 2003, attracting more the 500 new wineries of all sizes from around the state and leading to unprecedented unity in working toward shared industry goals;
    • We worked with state wine associations and legislatures around the nation to open up important new states, like New York, Florida and Texas, to direct shipping following the Supreme Court decision in 2005. Wineries can now ship to over 80 percent of U.S. consumers from 50 percent three years ago;
    • We successfully concluded negotiations with the European Union after 20 years of talks, resulting in a more level playing field for U.S. wine exports –which will top $1 billion this year;
    • We conducted the organization’s first research in 20 years on consumer usage and perceptions of California wine leading to the California First/California Wine Month program, an important collaboration between Wine Institute, CAWG, more than a dozen regional winery and grower associations, and 2300 retailers, restaurateurs and media outlets around the nation;
    • We entered into a new partnership with the California Travel and Tourism Commission to launch a five-year, multi-media national campaign to promote California wine and food supported by a $10 million budget;
    • We worked with a coalition of specialty crop producers to win funds for specialty crops, including wine, in the Farm Bill for the first time in history. The funds will support research, pest control, sustainable and organic growing practices, conservation, market development and market access for California wine.

    Sorry for the long response but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Why don’t we get together soon – using mass transit, of course – for a civilized conversation over lunch and a glass of California wine?

    In the meantime, you can find more information at http://www.wineinstitute.org or http://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org

  14. Nancy, thanks for your detailed reply. I understand you can’t dictate to wineries how to send their wines. But it seems to me there’s a complicity on some level, because the use of styrofoam just seems to increase every year and I don’t see anyone doing anything about it. With Wine Institute’s considerable resources and prestige (and I take second place to no one in my respect for it), who is in a better position to do something about styrofoam? For starters, Wine Institute could conduct formal reviews of alternatives to styrofoam (or hire someone to do it), and then share these findings with the industry. I’m sure if Wine Institute said product X was sound, the industry would accept it a lot more readily than if product X’s marketing materials say it.

  15. Steve, great post. I, as many, share your viewpoint about the Styrofoam conundrum and shipments of 3-or-so bottles being dwarfed by excess packaging. What if the wine community at large vowed to take this on as well? In conjunction with the measures taken by the Wine Institute, wine writers and reviewers such as yourself can request that they not be sent wines that are shipped in such a manner. Wine retailers can make their collective voice heard by the numerous distributors they deal with.

    Such action would be harsh, but perhaps that’s just what we need. I realize that Constellation ain’t bending over backwards for a blogger with a green slant just as a wine shop’s buyer isn’t about to sacrafice sales for the sake of the s-word (you know, Styrofoam…) If enough of us speak up, the tides ought to turn — if but slightly. Progress is progress, and we can do better!

  16. My apologies — the previous comments didn’t show up when this post first loaded, so I may have just spat out what has already been said. I’ll read ‘em and see. Thanks again, Steve.

  17. Tyler, the problem with telling wineries not to send me wine in styrofoam is that an unknown number of them will simply decide not to send me wine. That would deprive Wine Enthusiast readers of the opportunity of having these wines reviewed, which would be counter-productive. It’s going to take a loud, collective voice to turn this around. Thanks for your comment.

  18. I absolutely understand, Steve. I think there’s some validity to the idea I suggested — naive as it may be — but it’s certainly an issue that needs to be addressed full force. Keep stuff like this a’coming!

  19. Tyler, I’ve heard from a few wineries who say they’ve experimented with alternative cardboard closures. They worked well, temperature-wise, but the breakage went up. I don’t know what to think!

  20. While we have not yet solved the issue of styrofoam use in large scale wine shipments, we have just introduced a brand new product for consumers shipping or traveling with wine. WineHug (www.winehug.com), a reusable self-inflated wine pouch, uses air to cushion wine bottles in airline checked luggage or in any other form of transit. We will be introducing WineHug Twin later this year and we too recognize the industrial need.
    Will we be seeing you at the Boston Wine Expo next week?

  21. Nope.

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