Decades of marketing and overpackaging products means there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in the effort to make the beverage industry greener. And while many of the efforts to reduce waste have concentrated on recycling the billions of plastic containers, aluminum cans and glass bottles the industry uses each year, one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to cut emissions, energy and consumption of raw materials is to rethink the way drinks are packaged and transported.
Take Singapore-based EcoSpirits, which has introduced a change to the way alcohol is shipped and sold that could eliminate an average of 60% to 90% of the carbon dioxide associated with the traditional packaging and distribution of premium spirits, according to a study performed by Deloitte. Its system has drawn partnerships with iconic hotels such as London’s Savoy and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel as well as global drinks brand Pernod Ricard.
Here’s how it works: instead of putting the liquid into glass bottles and then shipping them around the world, the producer transports the liquid in bulk. Once it reaches the local market, the drinks are decanted into smaller, reusable containers called ecoTotes that are sent to the venue, such as a bar or a hotel. There the drink is put into the bottles that consumers are used to, or dispensed directly into a glass via an integral tap. The empty containers are returned to the processing plant for refilling. EcoSpirits estimates each ecoTote could eliminate more than 1,000 single-use glass bottles over its lifetime.
With consumer pressure growing, producers of luxury alcohol brands are looking for solutions like this to help them adopt so-called circular models that reuse materials and reduce waste and pollution. Many of the strategies adopted so far are based on reducing the size and weight of bottles and cans and stepping up efforts to get consumers to recycle containers. But reducing the use of cans and bottles altogether has added benefits in reducing shipping emissions and energy use.
“The transition to circular packaging technology is one of the most important movements in the spirits industry today,” Paul Gabie, ecoSpirits chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Circular is one of the most effective ways for our industry to do its part in supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the global drive to net-zero carbon emissions.”
EcoSpirits is one of several companies offering beverage makers ways to slim their shipment profiles. Colorado-based BrewVo has developed a way to extract water and alcohol from beer before shipment and reconstitute it at the destination. London-based Packamama makes lie-flat wine bottles that are 87% lighter than traditional cylindrical glass ones and 40% smaller, so almost twice the amount of product can be shipped in the same space, according to the company. It said sales volumes rose more than 20-fold in 2020 and growth has continued despite the pandemic.
Simple changes can make a big environmental difference in food and beverages, said Santiago Navarro, Packamama’s founder and chief executive officer. “The simplicity of the innovation is so impactful that many see it as obvious once implemented and even question why it was not done before,” Navarro said in an email. “It is important that we challenge the status quo, and rethink outdated technologies by questioning base assumptions.”
EcoSpirits says its program to reduce single-use glass waste saves 30 grams of carbon emissions per serve.
“Leveraging tech for ESG can be transformative for our planet,” said Sui Ling Cheah, ecoSpirits’ new chairman and an operating partner at venture-capital firm Wavemaker Partners, who has decades of investment-banking experience at the likes of BNP Paribas and JPMorgan. “Their ability to create significant impact through innovation and technology — on top of a robust and sustainable business model — is really impressive.”
One of the early adopters of EcoSpirits’ technology is Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, which has been using the technology since 2018, the year the company started, for the hotel’s iconic Singapore Sling — a mixture of gin, cherry liqueur, Bénédictine, curaçao, pineapple juice, lime juice, grenadine and bitters invented by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915.
By the end of last year, EcoSpirits was licensed in 18 countries, from the U.S. and U.K. to Norway, Germany, Vietnam and the Seychelles. It’s planning to expand into around 12 more this year, including the Philippines, the Netherlands, Israel and Mexico.
The drinks industry still has some issues on the environmental front, regardless. Spirits manufactured in one location might be flown anywhere else in the world. The sourcing of ingredients can be a drain on the food-and-beverage supply chain, too. And while the likes of ecoSpirits and Packamama may be changing some practices, there’s still an awful lot of single-use glass, and packaging and container space being used between the creation of the product and the moment it hits a customer’s mouth.
Still, while it’s unlikely to be emissions-free anytime soon, there are ways it’s trying. EcoSpirits, for example, has a Forest Program, where one tree is planted for every cycle of an ecoTote through the network, saving about 120 grams of carbon per serving, according to the firm.
A partnership with The Savoy in London led to the Co-Naissance Cocktail in mid-2021, developed in collaboration with the hotel’s Senior Mixologist Cristian Silenzi. It contains Portobello Road Gin in the ecoTote, re-carbonated Champagne, and two unique locally foraged London ingredients, elderflower from Little Venice and fig leaves from Embankment Gardens. In addition, one native tree was planted in Borneo for each cocktail served during the collaboration period.
Penicillin in Hong Kong, which won the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award among Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2021, partnered with ecoSpirits for its signature “One Penicillin, One Tree” cocktail and promotes its relationship with the startup on its website.
Last month, ecoSpirits announced its partnership with Pernod Ricard, one of the world’s largest spirits and wine companies, which will begin a pilot program to make its brands Absolut Vodka, Beefeater Gin and Havana Club Rum available in ecoTotes to as many as 80 bars, restaurants and hotels in Singapore and Hong Kong. That should reduce the carbon emissions of packaging and distribution for the participating brands by an average of 66%, ecoSpirits estimates.
“This new pilot program is only the start of our long-term sustainability journey,” Hermance De La Bastide, Pernod Ricard’s vice president of corporate affairs in Asia, said in an email. She said the drinks-maker was looking to expand the program to other markets in Asia and beyond.
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