Mapping the journey towards intelligent glass bottles

June 2021

Balancing sustainability with commerciality is at the heart of glass development and in this piece, Dr. Nick Kirk, Technical Director at Glass Technology Services, shares his views on the opportunities and challenges the industry needs to consider when creating a true ‘smart bottle’.

This concept of a ‘Smart Bottle’ is incredibly exciting. But this idea means different things to different people. In my mind, any truly ‘intelligent’ glass container needs to have some essential qualities that make it so. Firstly, and most importantly, it needs to be carbon neutral in its production, or even better, carbon negative. The number one benefit of glass lies in its unparalleled sustainability credentials and its circular nature. We need to make sure that any efforts to improve glass containers, help minimise their impact on the environment simultaneously.

It should also be completely trackable throughout its entire lifecycle, from the raw materials used to create it, to the furnace it’s born in, to the way it’s shipped to the retailer it’s been delivered to. At the same time, we also need to safeguard the future of glass by ensuring this new smart bottle remains an attractive option for the modern, ethical and time-poor consumer, able to exceed their demands for greater convenience.

How close are we to smart bottles?

These qualities may seem almost outlandish right now, but the sheer rate of new ideas being looked at and the many ways in which technology is improving in glass manufacturing suggest we might not be as far off as we think.

This massive level of innovation across the market is driven by our collective global push towards sustainability and greater efficiency, with thousands of decision-makers across the supply chain playing their individual roles with their own ground-breaking projects.

I sincerely believe that the sum result of these projects will inevitably lead us towards the creation of a truly ‘smart bottle’.

We all know that packaging has a vital role to play in our collective fight against climate change and food waste from protecting the product, and the development of such a container could have a huge impact on these efforts and likely futureproof the sector.

So, what are some of the key technology developments and market initiatives currently being run up the flagpole that are putting us on a course towards smart bottling?

Hybrid furnaces

Furnaces play the biggest role in the carbon footprint of glass bottles, and any improvements we can make in this area of a glass bottle’s route to market can be hugely significant when aiming to create a net-zero-ready product.

Hybrid melting is one method being closely looked at by leading industry players which has the potential to make waves throughout the sector. This technique involves the use of power generated from a combination of renewable electricity and hydrogen with a smaller fraction of natural gas, in combination with oxygen rather than air firing.

The Furnace of the Future project from European glass industry body, FEVE, is looking to maximise the potential of hybrid melting, with 80% of power coming from renewable electricity and 20% from oxy-fuel. This could result in an astonishing 60% reduction in direct furnace CO2 emissions.

While there are many electrically powered furnaces already in use, these are mainly used for the small scale production of specialist glasses. FEVE’s Furnace of the Future project stands out because it aims to create a hybrid furnace that can produce 350 tonnes a day of glass using high levels of recycled glass.

The success of this project could pave the way forward for large-scale manufacturers, such as Encirc, looking to use hybrid melting, and provide another way for them to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of their product portfolio.

Exploring alternate fuels

In addition to hybrid melting, there are several exciting projects using ultra-low-carbon fuels for glass melting and alternative raw materials. These include raw materials derived from waste products and the use of hydrogen and biofuels for glass melting.

Encirc’s project completed in 2021, showed for the first time the true potential of biofuels for glass production. Using innovative production methods, Encirc was able to produce a glass bottle using 100% recycled glass (cullet), using only the energy  generated from biofuels.

This project reduced the carbon impact of the containers they produced by almost 90%. I have confidence that this pioneering initiative will uncover more opportunities for an industry-wide reduction in carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is of course the buzzword in the industry at the moment, and one of the most exciting routes towards creating a carbon-neutral smart bottle. Fuel clusters are appearing throughout Europe, providing cleaner energy and greatly reducing carbon emissions. Hydrogen potentially offers a route to decarbonisation but research needs to be conducted on the heat transfer from the flame to glass and the impact on the chemical reactions within raw materials and glass during melting.

All of the energy-intensive industries are also working towards decarbonisation and there will no doubt be high demand for alternative fuels at a competitive price that will impact the availability of these fuels until there is an adequate infrastructure to meet demand. There are currently concerns over the availability of these alternative fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels.

Using raw materials derived from waste materials, such as bottom ash from wood pellets used in energy generation, is also an interesting potential route towards the contribution of decarbonisation.  In addition, the increase in recycled content will lower raw material use, and reduce CO2 emissions. Early research into the substitution of bottom ash seems to be positive but it will take time to evaluate it before it can be used in the production of container glass.

It goes without saying that these methods aren’t without their issues. No one is saying they’re easy to implement. The use of biofuel, waste materials and hydrogen in glass melting is still in its infancy and more research needs to be done on the heat transfer and the chemical impact on the glass.

However, these options offer an opportunity to achieve the sector’s ambition of net zero before 2050, and a deeper understanding of their impact, through projects like Encirc’s will be important moving forwards.

Creating a consumer-friendly smart bottle

Although glass is 100% recyclable, to truly stand up to plastic in the minds of consumers, we need to focus on innovations that will result in a bottle that is easier to transport, buy, and return, while also being less prone to breakage.

It is encouraging to see many research projects across the industry which aim to mitigate the physical, traditional disadvantages of glass with new manufacturing methods, raw materials and coatings which will make containers both stronger and lighter.

Central to these efforts are R&D, glass analysis and performance testing services, such as the ones provided by GTS, which are invaluable when it comes to creating durable containers which meet the needs of the consumer now and in the future.

For any new, innovative products, we are able to provide full design and development services, as well as preventative quality assessment and performance testing to ensure appropriate due diligence is completed before they are placed in the market.

Getting consumers on board with glass

Recycling bottles and the use of more, higher quality cullet will play a large part in the ability to lower CO2 of any future glass packaging, but getting hold of the cullet is the key challenge at the moment. Unfortunately, there is a fair way to go in closing the circular economy, with around 25% of glass containers in the UK not being returned to be recycled.

Consumers do need convenient and easy to use glass collections points and the glass sector supports improvement in the existing household collection by the proposed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations in order to achieve the sector’s target of 90% collected for recycling by 2030.

In addition to the existing household collection of glass, the Government is proposing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) to collect beverage glass containers at retailers, this is not necessary for glass packaging as glass should be collected at a single point using the existing household collection system this would avoid consumer confusion and improve consumer engagement.

Currently, the glass sector is reviewing the concept of the digital Deposit Return Scheme (DDRS), which would allow consumers to depose of their glass at home and still recover the deposit without having to lug empty bottles back to the supermarket while also reducing retailer costs.

The effectiveness and uptake of the roll-out of viable deposit return schemes over the next year will be critical to the future of the glass industry.

Aside from recycling schemes, the smart bottle could actually be a reusable one. Instead of being broken down and remelted after a single use, it would be returned, cleaned and filled time and time again until it is eventually recycled. This would significantly lessen its carbon output throughout its time in the retail environment.

One innovative scheme that aims to promote this is LOOP, a bottle and jar return and reuse initiative which is part of Tesco’s 4Rs plan: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The uptake has already started and seems to be gaining momentum, serving as a great example of innovation within the retail sector.

Keeping track of these bottles will be key, which is where Blockchain technology could really have an impact. Using Blockchain, containers can automatically be tracked as they go through the system a certain number of times, or for how long they have been in the retail space, helping ensure the nation’s cullet supply isn’t negatively impacted by innovative schemes like this.

Pushing for a smarter future

There’s no doubt an increase in recycling will be vital in the creation of an environmentally friendly smart bottle, but this needs to be combined with innovative technological advancements, as well as emerging schemes like LOOP, to truly influence the modern consumer.

It’s great to see leading food and beverage brands around the world looking to lower the environmental impact of their glass packaging, but we know that every area of innovation brings with it its own set of questions and issues to address.

At GTS, we believe in the potential of glass and we are excited to work with Encirc and other influential bodies across the sector to evolve the industry, explore opportunities and overcome the challenges ahead, using our knowledge and experience in glass technology and manufacturing.

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