Glass house effect

28 January 2020

There are many communication problems between what brands are doing sustainably and how that informs customers to make ethical environmental consumer decisions. FEVE, the European Container Glass Federation, is on a mission to help educate consumers and companies on the merits of glass as the best choice for sustainable, recyclable and circular economy-orientated packaging material.

The European container glass industry provides a range of glass packaging products for food and beverages as well as flacons for perfumery, cosmetics and pharmacy to customers across the world. With 160 manufacturing plants distributed all over Europe, it is an important contributor to the European economy and directly and indirectly keeps 125,000 workers in jobs along the supply chain.

The European Container Glass Federation (FEVE) is the organisation that oversees the European glass manufacturers sector. Its members produce over 20 million tonnes of glass every year. Manufacturing plants are located across 23 European states and include global blue chip and major companies working for the world’s biggest consumer brands.

The latest recycling rates show that over 12 million tonnes of glass bottles and jars are collected and recycled in Europe, with an average glass recycling rate in the EU of 74%. Glass remains the best performing food-grade closed loop in the world. This figure should be set to rise. With the circular economy now at the forefront of the political and economic agenda, member states of the EU have committed to ambitious targets on municipal waste reduction and glass packaging recycling.

“As an industry we commit to actually recycle all collected glass of sufficient quality in the closed loop,” said Adeline Farrelly, FEVE secretary general, alongside the release of those recycling figures. “An estimated 90% of what is collected goes into creating new bottles from old ones, offering brands and consumers a food-grade quality recycled material. Today, recycled glass is our most important raw material, which brings us major environmental benefits and energy savings.”

One of the latest studies on recycling by FEVE shows that countries like Austria and Sweden are hovering around and beyond a 90% collection recycling rates, and have done this by installing bottle bank systems and investing in consumer awareness. The technical issue of separating glass from other materials has also emerged as the best investment for public authorities to meet the new glass recycling targets.

Glass is one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly forms of packaging on the shelves. No matter which packaging solution it is used for, glass material is endlessly recycled in a closed loop system.

That EU average figure of 74% masks a variety of different factors that exist between countries. Regarding performance rates, top performers with over 90% recycled have separate collection schemes that ensure they keep only glass to be re melted and used; Belgium, Finland, Austria, Sweden and Slovenia perform at this level and provide high quality secondary material for the industry. At the other end, under 40% is collected in countries like Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Malta and Romania where collection culture needs to be improved to see success. Each country is different and will need its own focused and tailored strategy to ensure top class glass recycling.

“Consumers have a strong connection with glass packaging, which is for them more than just a packaging,” Farrelly continued. “Over 10 years ago, the industry decided to invest in consumer communications to raise awareness about the importance of glass recycling and the other key assets of glass packaging. We want to help bridge the collection gap, but clearly cannot do so on our own. Efforts across the value chain are needed.”

Premium glass feel

A recent FEVE initiative is the Close the Glass Loop platform, which seeks to unite the glass collection and recycling value chain and establish a material stewardship programme that will result in more bottle-to-bottle recycling. Targets are ambitious, but achievable – a 90% average EU collection rate of used glass packaging by 2030 and better quality of recycled glass, so more recycled content can be used in a new production loop.

Currently most glass ends up back in the production loop; the average batch contains 52% recycled content. By collecting more and better-quality glass up front, better-quality recycled content can be made available. The whole value chain is involved in recycling: from the glass producer to the brand-owner and the filler, to the consumer and glass treater, as well as collectors and municipalities. By achieving full glass packaging recycling, FEVE believe the initiative can take the industry one step closer to realising a circular economy.

Another key development in 2019 has been the results of an independent industry survey, commissioned by FEVE, which shows that glass is seen as the best packaging material for beauty, perfume and medical products by 77% of 2,030 surveyed consumers – way ahead of plastic and metal. Popular opinion arises from the materials’ environmental credentials, its ability to preserve quality of contents and the heavy, premium feel.

When it comes to sustainability, 69% of respondents to the same survey rated glass as the most recyclable and ocean-friendly packaging when compared to metal or plastic, a clear indicator of positive public opinion. This estimation is held strongest by millennials, who let convictions around environmental credentials sway their purchasing choices according to FEVE consumer research.

Plus with the impact of BBC’s Blue Planet II and the amount of plastic clogging our seas – estimated to contain more plastic than fish by 2050 – concern over the state of our marine systems has pushed consumers to expect brands to find sustainables solution to consumer waste.

Green growth

Glass packaging production in Europe grew by 1% in volume (tonnes) and by 1% in unit terms in the first half year 2018 compared to the previous half year, according to data published by FEVE. The growth is in line with the full year 2017 data, which recorded a growth of 2% in weight terms and 2.4% in units and compares favourably with the historical trend since 2012. Generally, all food and beverage market segments experienced a demand growth for glass, and the outlook is very positive also for the flaconnage sector for perfumery, cosmetics and pharmacy.

"We are encouraged by this positive trend which confirms our belief that brands and consumers are switching to glass for environmental reasons,” comments Farrelly. “This increased trust in glass from consumers is heartening for our industry. We are constantly making efforts to optimise the unique recycling properties of glass into a business model that is an authentic example of a circular economy. We work hard to improve our production technologies and product characteristics, to reduce energy use and minimise any environmental impact by using recycled glass.”

Glass is one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly forms of packaging on the shelves because it is endlessly recycled in a closed loop system. Recycled glass is also the most precious resource for new production, replacing the use of raw materials like sand, soda ash and limestone. The same applies to cosmetics packaging. A 2018 study conducted by German glass association BV GLAS found glass flacons have a recyclability range between 89% and 97%, with perfume bottles, specifically, at 90% - with the other 10% due to the spray nozzle and diffuser components. Half of all consumers said they would be interested in seeing more cosmetics packaged in glass – a clear indicator of potential market growth for flacons.

“These results show that there is a genuine appetite among sustainability-conscious consumers for more beauty products packaged in glass,“ says Michael Delle Selve, senior communications manager at FEVE. “Glass packaging could be the key to connecting with millennials. It’s time for brands to take notice and react by increasing their offerings in glass packaging.“

Future is clear

Whether being used in spirits, wines and beer where it is a leading packaging material or in food, water and dairy where it is seeing an increasing market share, glass is the second leading packaging material in Europe by volume, according to the latest Euromonitor study, and underpins why it is increasingly becoming a leading choice for consumers who want to make ethical packaging decisions.

Some 90% of collected glass bottles and jars are used repeatedly to produce new food grade glass packaging in the closed loop system. Each time a bottle or jar is recycled into new containers, energy and raw materials are also saved and less CO2 is emitted. By recycling glass, over 12 million tonnes of raw materials are saved each year and over 7 million tonnes of CO2 are avoided - equal to taking 4 million cars off the road.

The circular economy is a process that will take time to implement. Sustainability and ethical packaging are nascent consumer requirements, moving as from a tie-breaker on the shelf to a conscious decision before purchasing. With credible recycling figures, combined with positive consumer attitudes FEVE are on track in making the case that glass is ready to be part of the future packaging mix and circular economy. The federation may not have a crystal ball, but the evidence suggests glasses will continue to emerge as a major force in packaging.

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