Whisky is aged in wooden casks or barrels before it’s bottled, but next year we should begin seeing Johnnie Walker appear on shelves in bottles made from paper.
Reducing the world’s dependency on single-use plastic packaging is a long, complicated journey. It could take generations for Plastic-Free July to transition from an awareness-raising campaign to a global norm all year round. In the meantime, some leading companies are beginning to collaborate on more sustainable packaging alternatives. That’s a significant step in the right direction, because cooperative ventures like these could provide a foundation for accelerating change.
A case in point is the new consortium Pulpex Limited, which launched earlier this month as a venture of the leading beverage maker Diageo, the parent company of Johnnie Walker, and the financial management firm Pilot Lite.
Pulpex Limited will produce 100 percent paper pulp bottles made from wood along with other renewable sources. The wood will be sustainably sourced, according to a Diageo press statement.
This is an especially interesting move by Diageo and the venerated Johnnie Walker brand because the company is actually not known for its use of plastic bottles.
Diageo sold off 19 of its brands in 2018 but still holds a portfolio of high-profile spirits including the iconic Johnnie Walker brand, which is typically bottled in glass. Another well-known Diageo brand is Guinness, which comes in aluminum cans.
Glass and aluminum are two of the most commonly recycled materials, which should give Diageo a sustainability edge over beverage makers that rely on single-use plastic bottles.
Digging a little deeper, though, glass bottles can involve an outsized carbon footprint, partly because they are much heavier than either plastic or aluminum. In addition to the carbon impact, the extra weight also raises shipping costs for the beverage maker and for the bottle recycler.
As for Guinness, paper may not have a weight advantage over aluminum, but it does have the advantage of recycling options that involve a lower carbon footprint compared to producing recycled aluminum. The paper bottles are both biodegradable and compostable.
The new bottles also support Diageo’s emphasis on innovation, which it is promoting as part of Johnnie Walker’s brand identity. In addition, the wood-sourced packaging enhances the aged-in-wood identity of spirits like Johnnie Walker.
From an environmental perspective, the brand advantages come into focus more clearly for two other companies that have joined the Pulpex venture, Unilever and PepsiCo. Both companies rely heavily on single-use plastic bottles, and they have both set ambitious goals for joining the circular economy.
PepsiCo has pledged to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable and use 25 percent recycled content in all of its plastic packaging by 2025. That seems like a ridiculously low bar, considering that most plastic beverage bottles are already recyclable, as are aluminum cans. The real problem is getting people to recycle them. In that regard, the compostable and biodegradable options for disposing of the Pulpex bottle may help PepsiCo reach its goal in a more meaningful way.
Unilever has established similar goals, but its task is more complicated because it deploys grades of plastic other than the PET commonly used in beverage bottles. The company says it is working with recycling stakeholders to improve recycling rates, and the Pulpex bottles should help relieve some of that burden.
In recent years, Unilever has also expanded its brand family to include Seventh Generation and other “natural” products. Paper packaging would help the company live up to the sustainability marketing of those brands, including an internal carbon tax that Seventh Generation established in 2016.
At first blush, paper and transportable liquids seem to be an odd couple. Paper cups, for example, are fine for short-term use but begin to fall apart within days if not hours.
Nevertheless, Pulpex has come up with a patented technology that provides for a long-lasting, durable paper pulp bottle.
The challenge is getting costs down. Pulpex anticipates that support from beverage industry leaders will enable it to compete on cost with most glass bottles in the near future. The company is also working on a bottle that can withstand the hot-fill process (the industry term for when liquids and bottles are sterilized), and future plans include developing a version that can hold carbonated beverages.
It will be interesting to see if other leading companies join the Pulpex venture. Brands that rely on single-use plastic packaging have ample motivation to introduce more sustainable solutions into their supply chains, and could be willing to absorb any extra costs in order to establish an identity that demonstrates awareness of the ocean plastic crisis.
Even as the world is gripped in the COVID-19 outbreak, the ocean plastic problem is not going away, and cleanup efforts pale beside the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans.
For example, the organization Ocean Voyages Institute recently completed the “biggest open ocean cleanup effort ever,” pulling 103 tons of fishing gear and other waste out of the water. Unfortunately, researchers estimate that millions of tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year.
Some companies have turned to sourcing recycled plastic bottles and other products from retrieved ocean waste. That is a helpful approach that could provide an economic incentive for scaling up cleanup efforts.
However, until there are behavior changes at all levels of society the ocean pollution problem will persist, and a more sustainable, biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging will help make a difference.
Editor’s note; In case you missed our most recent Learn From Home Webinar on Plastic-Free July during the era of the coronavirus, you can watch it here.
Image credit: Diageo
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.