Bottle Blues

Recycling wine bottles takes on a whole new meaning when the flasks are simply cleaned, sterilized and reused. A new company hopes that your blue bin won't ever be the same



About a year ago, Bruce Stephens shot out of bed at midnight, woke up his alarmed wife and voiced his greatest heartache of the hour: Why, he lamented, did America lack a system of commercial-scale wine-bottle reuse? His abrupt epiphany was not quite a spontaneous one, for bottles were already on his mind.

Earlier that day, Stephens, a Sonoma home winemaker, had learned with great frustration that a 500-bottle deal had fallen through on his supplier’s end. With a barrel of backyard Cab ready to be bottled—and with empty 750s by the thousands dwelling in streetside recycling bins all over town, destined for industrial melting kilns—Stephens’ frustration was only equaled by his optimism. For although he saw a resource terribly wasted, the problem had a very simple fix: reuse, sterilize and redistribute empty wine bottles.

Since his midnight awakening, Stephens has conducted extensive research into the glass, recycling and wine industries. He has learned that seven out of 10 wine bottles in the United States ends life in a landfill; that nearly every nation besides the U.S. has a large-scale bottle collection and reuse system in place; that in the European Union, the average wine bottle is used eight times before its life cycle ends—quite possibly in an America landfill; that 60 percent of a wine bottle’s carbon footprint comes from melting, molding and making the glass bottle. Stephens discovered, as well, that that several bottle redistribution companies have tried but failed in the United States due to technological inadequacies of their era, problems that have since been overcome. After deciding that a bottle wash-and-reuse system was a viable business idea, Stephens partnered with two other entrepreneurs, drafted a business plan and secured a facility in Stockton. Now, the trio is scheduled to launch into business. “This sounds terrible to some people, but we need to follow the Europeans,” Stephens says. “They are way ahead of us in things like reusing bottles. But it makes sense, and all we’re trying to do is make sense.”

Plus, he adds, “there’s a huge percentage of wineries that want to be greener. Every one [of them] will be our customer.”

The company has a no-nonsense name—Wine Bottle Recycling—and the goal is to collect and redistribute 3 million to 5 million cases’ worth of used wine bottles each year by sometime in 2010. The three-man partnership includes Napa County supervisor Bill Dodd and one Chris Ronson, who helped operate a short-lived bottle-washing plant in the late 1990s called Evergreen, still well-remembered by many wineries. The three have lined up prospective clients for Wine Bottle Recycling and have already furnished a retired Del Monte fruit-canning plant of 92,000 square feet with the advanced machinery needed to make the plan work. Essential is a new computerized optical sorting machine that can distinguish between the hundreds of bottle molds in use today. Just down the conveyor line is the washing machine, capable of processing and de-labeling over 70,000 wine bottles per hour. As ambitious, innovative and in-demand as it may be, Wine Bottle Recycling’s plan is simultaneously modest; by year five, Stephens hopes they’ll be recirculating just 1 percent—perhaps 2 percent—of the industry’s wine bottles back into use.

Americans, after all, drink a whole lot of wine and toss away a whole lot of bottles. Stephens can live with the former; it’s the latter that keeps him up at night.

Recycling Not the Answer

As he wheels his blue bin to the street curb each Monday morning, Stephens bows his head in embarrassment. Though many Americans believe this weekly ritual to be a meaningful act in helping to mitigate a plague of environmental issues, including landfill inundation and climate change, Stephens knows otherwise.

“It’s staggering how dirty the bottle industry is,” says Stephens, who co-owns an overseas recycled plastic neoprene manufacturer. “The public has to be aware of what the glass industry has been doing. Getting us all to recycle and think we’re saving the world is just duping the public.”

Considering the energy required to melt glass, the broken bottles that wind up being swept into the trash are major strikes against the business of recycling glass. Ronson, whom Stephens first approached last fall as a consultant, also says that recycling is hardly different than buying new bottles.

“Recycling is not a solution to anything,” says Ronson, who lives in Modesto. “What does recycling accomplish? You’re still melting material at extremely high temperatures and remolding it. All you’re not doing is taking silica sand from the earth. Whoopee.”

Today, many wineries know the business sense in taking “green” measures and in letting customers know about it. The use of old bottles will likely become a selling point for many wineries, but in the 1990s, Ronson recalls, most producers wouldn’t even think of buying reused glass unless it was cheaper than new glass. Thus, Ronson’s endeavor with Evergreen in Stockton was barely viable at first, but as the green movement accelerated, the future of reusing bottles grew brighter. In the late 1990s, however, the wine industry killed it by introducing label adhesives that resisted all but the most arduous bodily efforts to remove them from the bottles. Sorting and cleaning were easy, but by 1999 the crew in the Stockton facility regularly had to drop other tasks to use razor blades and scrape labels from the bottles. Evergreen continued to wash dusty bottle batches for immediate winery use, but the delabeling of old bottles was finished. Today, Wine Bottle Recycling has a “proprietary machine” that will delabel the bottles, Ronson says.

Another recent bottle-collecting and washing service, Encore, lasted until 2004, then collapsed. The hitch: sorting the bottles. Zac Robinson, owner of Husch Vineyards, an Anderson Valley winery, received used and washed wine bottles from Encore until its final days. Robinson broke off his contract with the used bottle supplier because the company’s hardware failed to properly sort the glassware. Every fifth or sixth bottle, he says, wound up with a bubble under its label due to miniscule size differences in the bottles that came jingling down the conveyor belt.

“These were millimeter differences,” he says. “The bottles were identical to the naked eye but our label machine was programmed for one size, and it couldn’t put labels cleanly on bottles that weren’t exactly the same. It was a hard decision for us, but we had to quit.”

Breaking the Molds

In the wine industry, in which more than 2,000 companies in California alone strive for uniqueness in a relatively homogenous industry, there now exist roughly 400 bottle molds in the 750 ml category. Each differs slightly from the other in minute differences of height, width, glass thickness, nozzle length, punt indentation, color, and many more parameters. Not a task for naked eyes, bottle sorting can even foil machines, and Encore’s mechanical apparatus failed in an industry drowning in bottle styles. Frey Vineyards, the largest organic winery in the nation, also quit the used-and-washed bottle game two decades ago, as its supplier proved incapable of delivering identical bottles in a batch.

That was in the 1980s, but things have changed. At Wine Bottle Recycling, the facial recognition software that will sort the bottles as they roll past on a conveyor is virtually flawless. Anyway, the 400 styles of bottles are not likely to appear regularly in the laser sights of the apparatus, as just 20 styles make up 80 percent of bottles in use, Stephens says. Frey Vineyards, which has expressed interest in purchasing from Wine Bottle Recycling, may be a particularly easy customer; the company fills almost 1 million bottles of wine each year in just three bottle molds.

Stephens feels that wineries that custom engrave their bottles, making them useless for a grassroots company gearing up to reuse bottles, are providing a disservice to the system already in place in Europe and which he hopes to launch in America. Such bottles will not be welcomed at the drop-off “bottle shacks” that Ronson, Dodd and Stephens plan to establish around Northern California. At these locations, wine bottle donators will be rewarded with a cash refund. In turn, Stephens says, Wine Bottle Recycling will price their bottles as competitively as possible, 20 to 50 percent cheaper than new glass, he promises—and cleaner.

A priority in the plan is to develop a system of only sterilizing a batch of bottles the day before shipment to the winery. Major bottle suppliers today may store batches of bottles in warehouses for months before delivery to clients. These bottles may have developed “bottle bloom,” a condition in which silica dust emerges from the glass and clouds the surface. Many times wineries must rewash their new bottles before use as the filmy substance can alter the ph of wine and perhaps even cause so-called cork taint, Stephens says.

Ready & Willing

Michael Mondavi is ready and waiting for Wine Bottle Recycling to open up for business. No stranger to filling used bottles with his wine, he purchased glass bottles from a collecting and sterilizing company called Calglass in the 1960s and 1970s. Chipped bottles regularly slipped past the inspectors, however, and different bottle molds frequently wound up on the same belt receiving the same vintage of wine from the filler. Today, Mondavi, who produces six labels in a dozen bottle molds with Folio Fine Wine Partners, believes such problems are things of the past.

“Today, the sophistication of European bottle-reuse equipment is tremendous, and the automation is terrific. If that service becomes available in California,” he says, “put me first on the list.”

Mondavi is also eager to return to doing business with a smaller, more flexible bottle supplier. “What Bruce is proposing to do will be a wonderful thing for the smaller wineries,” he says. “Otherwise, little producers like us are slaves to the big glass companies, because when they pull their bottles from the kiln, you’ve got to buy them. If they say they’re doing a run of 750 Burgundy green bottles in July and the next batch won’t be until May, you might have no choice, and if you don’t buy the bottles then, they’ll charge you for storage.”

Wine Bottle Recycling will face some limitations. With just one facility expected to be online at launch time, the service will depend on bottles that never left the state of California; bottles of Napa Cab shipped to Manhattan will not likely make their way back when empty to the Stockton bottle processor. Stephens admits it: “We’re depending for now on bottles from locally consumed wine.” He hopes to engage event centers, restaurants and tasting rooms in a bottle delivery or pickup system.

Gaining the interest of customers, though, won’t be a problem, says Stephens. Husch, Folio, Frey and even such giants as Kendall-Jackson, Parducci and Sutter Home are firmly interest in purchasing sterilized bottles when Wine Bottle Recycling opens for business, and all signs are pointing to success for the Stephens and his partners, especially as the price of re-melted, re-molded glass rises steadily with energy prices.

But until the day he makes his first bottle delivery, Monday mornings will be a trying time for Stephens.

“It’s absolutely embarrassing to take your blue bin to the curb and up and down the street everyone else is doing the same and everyone thinking, ‘I’m doing a great thing for the world’ when, really, it’s not happening.”

Not yet, anyway.


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