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Bottlers Boost Their Green-Glass Recycling Efforts

June 1, 1999

Green wine bottles are notoriously difficult to recycle, and until recently nearly all of them ended up in garbage dumps. Lately, however, the bottling industry has moved to deal with these "bad boys" of recycling. Suntory, a top Japanese producer of Western-style spirits, set the ball rolling in May 1999 when it began to use so-called "ecology bottles" exclusively in domestic wine production, manufacturing 100% of its green wine bottles from recycled glass. With today's heightened concern over the environment other Japanese producers are sure to follow suit, which in turn may also have an effect on those foreign wine producers which have been increasing their exports to Japan.

Beer and Sake Bottles Get Top Honors for Recyclability
Beer bottles boast a 95% recycling rate, and the standard 1.8-liter bottles used for sake and other spirits do nearly as well, with an 85% recycling rate. These types of bottles have long held top honors in the recycling field. Since beer was first produced domestically in the late nineteenth century, Japan has had its own unique methods of recycling empty bottles, such as a deposit system where people could return empties to a liquor store and receive a cash deposit in return, and a network of vendors called "bottle merchants" who would purchase empty bottles.

As time passed, however, the number of different bottle types increased along with the variety of their contents. Today bottle varieties can basically be classified into the following two categories: "returnable" bottles, such as the standard ones used for beer and sake, which can be washed and reused; and so-called "one-way" bottles, such as soft drink and whiskey bottles, which are either discarded after use or converted into cullet (crushed waste glass) and used to make new bottles.

The usage rate of cullet has increased along with the awareness of recycling, passing 55% at the beginning of the 1990s. The goal of the glass bottle industry was to reach 60% cullet usage by the middle of the decade. Recently, however, a new problem has arisen, as a "wine boom" in Japan has caused the volume of empty wine bottles to increase sharply. In addition to the fact that wine bottles come in a great variety of subtly different colors, they also come in a wide range of shapes. This makes them difficult to recycle, causing increasingly more serious environmental problems.

Response Expected from Foreign Producers as Well
The greatest obstacle to recycling wine bottles is their color. The materials used to give bottles a green color contain metallic elements such as manganese, and even if these bottles are converted into cullet and melted, their color cannot be removed. "White" (clear) and brown bottles are widely used, and therefore easy to recycle. There is almost no demand, however, for bottles in other colors--such as, for instance, green. Red wine, however, which is rapidly gaining popularity, nearly always comes in green bottles, because this color of glass affords it the best protection against the harmful effects of light and other factors. Bottle collection companies are facing great difficulties in finding ways to dispose of these bottles, and throughout Japan it is not rare to see lots piled high with mountains of green bottles.

Now Suntory, in an effort to fulfill its responsibilities as a major drink bottler, has announced its intention to recycle green bottles. The company produces 6.2 million 12-bottle cases of wine annually, of which 1.6 million cases are red wine contained in green bottles. Suntory plans to use recycled green bottles for all red wine production by August 1999.

Recycling glass bottles helps to conserve materials such as limestone and silica. Moreover, cullet can be melted at lower temperatures than natural raw materials, thereby conserving energy. For these reasons, bottle manufacturers and wine producers alike are looking favorably at the move to expand recycling efforts to include green bottles as well. It is also thought that this demand for more recyclable green bottles in Japan, a major consumer of imported wine, will prompt those foreign wine producers aiming to expand their exports to Japan to create uniform glass colors, standardized bottle shapes, and otherwise make their bottles easier to recycle.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.