About 15 years ago, soft drink companies began switching from glass to PET bottles. They were cheaper, of course, and larger companies could even make the bottles themselves. For the glass industry, the shift hit hard, and some insiders thought the industry was finished.
Fast forward to 2008 and one of the world’s largest soft drink companies, The Coca-Cola Company, has partnered with Vitro Packaging Inc. to launch a 12-oz glass bottle with a resealable closure and the well-known Mae West shape. So what happened to the glass industry? As Dallas-based Doug Hesche, vice-president of Sales and Marketing for Vitro Packaging, explains, it stabilized. “Plastics did come in and have taken their position. But glass stabilized,” he says. “It found its niche in beer, the wine industry, spirits and some food products as well.”
In fact, today the glass industry is as healthy as it’s ever been in the last 15 years. Even with aseptic and plastic packaging, there’s a place for glass – after all, says Hesche, no one’s likely to put Crown Royal whisky into a tetra pak. In the early 1990s, demand spiked when beer began migrating from cans to bottles, explains Joseph Cattaneo, president of the Virginia-based Glass Packaging Institute. More recently, Cattaneo says he’s noticed that new products are often launched in glass “for the image and the specialty look.” And, he notes, it hasn’t hurt the glass industry that petroleum has become such a costly ingredient.
Hesche says the industry has also seen more demand from consumers who associate a premium product with glass and are purchasing those products more often. In swankier restaurants and high-end bars, water, for instance, now comes served in glass bottles. “You see that in brand over brand over brand using glass,” says Hesche. “The Coke story is a good example of that. That package is a step up from a can. It’s more than just about conveying a liquid, it’s conveying the brand image.”
That’s why glass fits the brand image of organics so well. “[Glass] is a pure product made of sand, soda ash and limestone,” says Cattaneo, adding, “it provides an inert package so it doesn’t interfere or have an affect on the taste of the products that are put in it.” With the rise in demand for organics, glass has actually found a new niche. “If you have an organic product,” says Hesche, “you want to put it in an inert package and carry that organic statement all the way through.”
Glass also connects with the current push to more sustainable materials and cleaner processing. It’s 100 per cent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly. For glass manufacturers it’s actually more cost-effective to produce new bottles from recycled crushed glass or cullet because it takes less energy to melt cullet than it does to melt the raw materials. “If you can increase cullet use by 10 per cent in the furnace,” says Hesche, “you decrease fossil fuel use, be it natural gas, diesel or propane, by 2.5 per cent.”
Yet as ideal as glass can be, there are some drawbacks. For instance, it’s costlier to transport, and is heavier even when the packaging is empty. Of course it’s also breakable, forcing production to a halt if it breaks on the line. But the industry as a whole is working on that, too. Hesche says the average glass bottle is 40 per cent lighter than it was 20 years ago. And, adds Cattaneo, as the industry is lightening the bottles, it’s “structurally making them stronger.”
In all the future looks pretty bright for glass. The raw materials are abundant and economical, and the companies that build glass-making equipment are reinvesting in ways to make the process and end product more cost effective and environmentally friendly. From an economic standpoint, Hesche believes it’s recession proof. “If the economies are going to turn down, people are always going to consume liquids, buy pickles, feed their babies,” he says. “Those things don’t go away despite any economic downturn. We’re not on the luxury end of the spectrum so to speak. So I’m pretty bullish about the future.”