When In Rome

Rob Malin was inspired to found Anglo-Italian craft wine company When In Rome during his time in rural Italy, watching the locals buy wine from local producers in refillable containers. Now he and his co-founders, Andrea Marchesi and Lorenzo Canali, sell their own products in paper bottles. We spoke to Rob about this decision and its reflection on the wine industry in Europe and beyond.

There’s lots of discussion in the packaging industry about different materials; some say that wine is supposed to be a luxury, so glass is a more appropriate material to use. How do you make a consumer’s experience of a cardboard or paper bottle the same as a glass bottle?

Good question. You’re right – wine is uniquely overpackaged, and people have a perception that it has to be in a glass bottle to be of good quality.

We fully recognise there are certain things you cannot do without using glass. For example, you can put sparkling wine in a can, but it’s not a good size. If you want a 750ml serving of wine in a container, it has to be glass. If you want your wine to be clearly visible, you could use transparent PET, but generally speaking, it’s glass.

We try to combat that by making our containers look as pretty as possible. Our paper bottle looks like a bottle, so we’re directly appealing to the consumer’s perception that that’s what wine should come in. It’s made of rigid cardboard, so it feels nice to hold – a different feeling to glass, but this is still a premium product. It sells for £11 on Ocado, which is a good price for a bottle of wine.

In terms of the actual bottle, what is it made of? Just cardboard, or is there plastic, maybe a PET liner inside?

Yes, it contains PET, so it’s fully recyclable – the bottle is certified under German packaging law, and that’s the strictest recycling law in Europe. I know single-use plastic is an issue in the consumer’s mind, and that’s why, when we tried to sell a PET bottle, we came across a lot of resistance from consumers. But of course, in places like Germany and Scandinavia where they have a lot of boxed wine, a very high percentage of their plastic is recyclable. In the UK it’s much lower, so that is an issue.

The bottle is 94% recycled cardboard and there’s a metallised PET liner inside. It’s at 4% metallisation, which is way below what it needs to be – the threshold for it to be safely recycled with other plastic – but it provides the extra protection for the quality of the product. Then the cap is metal.

Is it recyclable in the paper stream or does it have to be separated?

You’ll see there’s a button on the packaging; you push that, and the two halves of the paper bottle come apart. Then you separate the inner plastic liner from the rest of the product.

Does the consumer have to do that or does that happen in the recycling facility?

Ideally, the consumer does that, as that will increase its likelihood of being recycled. It’s a bit like if you put a sandwich wrapper in the cardboard recycling with the plastic window. Chances are it’ll still be recycled and the plastic will be separated in the waste stream, but it might also be rejected.

So, taking into consideration the low recycling rates of plastic here in the UK, how does your product compare to other materials? Have you carried out life cycle assessments?

Yes, we’ve done a lot of work on the life cycle. We’ve worked with the company Carbon Cloud, and they provide a full life-cycle analysis in terms of the carbon footprint for our product.

Glass is fully recyclable, as you know. But it’s recyclable at 1600°C – that’s the melting point of glass. The melting point of aluminium is 660°C, so cans of wine have a smaller carbon footprint. Recycling glass is a huge energy cost. If you had a hydrogen-powered glass furnace, that would be fine, but there aren’t any.

The other issue with glass is that it’s very heavy. This bottle is extremely light and easier to transport. If you think about the bag-in-box, it’s square. So are pallets, so you’re not wasting any space when you transport them. Ordinary wine bottles aren’t an efficient shape, and that wastes space.

I’m interested in what you said about the shape of the bottle. Is that because you want to provide the same luxurious bottle experience when the wine is in a box?

There’s obviously a compromise to be made. Will our business succeed selling just bag-in-box? No, it will not, because that’s a tiny niche of the UK market. The bag-in-box is somewhere between 3 and 5% of the UK market. In France, it’s 42%; in Sweden, 65%. This is how far behind we are, because UK supermarkets drag their heels. They get tied up on things like recyclability and don’t think about carbon footprint. We realised, as a business in the UK where no one’s buying bag-in-box, that we’re never going to see the kind of scale that’s going to help the planet. However, I absolutely hope somebody buys this bottle of Rosato, likes it, and trades up to a bag-in-box. That will hopefully come when they’re used to this product.

I think we have a good idea that the less steps consumers have to take to recycle something, the more likely they are to do it. If someone is opting for a bottle with sustainability as a feature, they likely have recyclability in their minds already, so they might be more willing to take that step of separating the halves. But are you worried it’s a step too many? If they don’t separate it, what happens if it ends up in the recycling stream?

That depends on the local authority in charge. If you threw this bottle into a bin in Germany, it’s likely to be recycled. In the UK, it really depends on how sophisticated the local recycling authority is. Generally, the answer is not very sophisticated. So, it does worry me that people are going to throw these away without separating the halves. This is a more expensive solution, though, so we’re looking at a consumer who’s actually willing to pay a slight premium for an eco-friendly product.

Have you thought at all about experimenting with or going down the route of a liner-less bottle? Is that something you would be interested in looking into in the future?

100%. I’m not pretending for a second that the solutions we found are perfect; they really are not. Both the bag-in-box and the bottle need to be separated to be put into recycling, and both require some effort on the part of the consumer. In the same way, one of the reasons why less than half of the glass in the UK is recycled is because the consumer can’t be bothered to put it in the right bin. But you just have to have good faith in humanity that they will do the right thing.

For a company like us that wants to be at the forefront of sustainability in the wine industry, we will look at each of these new packaging solutions as they come along on their own merits, and if there’s a solution that’s better than this, we will absolutely look into it. When you start measuring your carbon footprint as we do with Carbon Cloud, you can’t allow that to go up again. It has to continue to fall, otherwise, why are we doing it?

Do you ship the bottles to your customers? Are they able to order online?

We are – we have our own website and we sell on Amazon, but our primary sales channels in the UK are Waitrose and Ocado.

What are your hopes for the future?

Obviously, in the UK, our objective is to begin to work with other grocery providers to distribute our products. We’re also talking to companies overseas and hoping to sell abroad, specifically in North America and Asia.

The original interview has been edited for clarity.