Asia likes whisky. A lot. Around 3 billion bottles of the amber nectar were consumed in APAC in 2018, a figure that is expected to rise by some 40% over the next three years.* The biggest whisky market by far is India, in which the top 3 local brands alone ship around 920 million bottles per year.
In Southeast Asia, Myanmar is the thirstiest country – 84 million bottles of the top selling brand are quaffed in the country annually. But along with the alcoholic fun comes an environmental hangover – those empty bottles pile up into a big climate headache.
Is glass the new plastic?
While most public attention these days is focused on single-use plastics, the environmental impact of single-use glass has been much less recognised. Yes, glass is recyclable – but what few people realise is that the recycling option is very rarely exercised. Most of the bottles and jars that we buy have a very short life span, and the majority end up in landfill alongside plastic.
Worse, glass has a bigger overall carbon footprint than plastic, thanks to the energy used in its production. Its relatively high weight also means that the shipping of containers of whisky bottles around the world creates a major source of pollution.
In fact, according to Singapore-based spirit distributor Proof & Co, every single bottle of scotch, (or any other spirit) contributes about 550g of carbon into the atmosphere, once packing and logistics are taken into account.
Multiply that by 3 billion per year and Asia’s tipplers are a significant, and growing, environmental threat. (And we haven’t even begun to account for spirits other than whisky; for example the 235 million bottles of gin consumed in the Philippines every year.)
To tackle the problem, Proof & Co has devised what it calls a “closed loop” distribution solution, using new materials, designs and technologies that the company claims will eliminate nearly all packaging waste in the spirits supply chain.
“It’s one of those rare and special sustainability innovations that does both dramatically change the environmental/sustainable carbon footprint of behavior, but also provides significant cost advantages.” Says Proof’s CEO Paul Gabie.
The ecoSPIRITS system, as it’s called, is based upon three innovations: reusable containers, a localized network of “eco-pods” that co-ordinate delivery, and dedicated tracking and monitoring technology. (Oh, and they plant trees, too, but more on that later.)
Going back to the future – reusable containers
Historically, wines and spirits were transported and stored in large capacity barrels, not small bottles. Why not, wondered Proof & Co, go back to a system where the bartender simply goes to the storeroom and refills the same bottle from a large capacity holder?
So they created the ecoTOTE.
Shock-proof, ergonomically designed and re-usable, the ecoTOTE holds the equivalent of 6 bottles, and stacks into a smaller footprint in the storeroom. A single bottle at front of house is continuously refilled from the tote which, when empty, is collected, sterlised, refilled, sealed and sent back.
The closed loop
But the ecoTOTE is merely the last mile of the sustainability journey. The larger system is centered on locally operated ecoPLANT facilities that serve as a local co-ordination and distribution system handling bulk shipments from around the world.
Each ecoPLANT takes delivery of much larger containers of product, decants them into the ecoTOTEs for distribution to local retailers, and acts as the collection and sterlisation points for returned totes. This, says Gabie, “creates a shipping efficiency somewhere in the range of 80%. And then the other massive saving, both in cost and environmentally, is simply eliminating the need for a single use glass bottle.”
There are currently five such ecoPLANTs around Asia with 15 more scheduled for rollout this year, and the hope is that ultimately all spirits distribution can be based upon the loop system. “We are already beginning to open up the ecoSPIRITS platform to a wider range of partners,” Gabie says, “So brands that are perhaps looking to access those spirits markets can use the network and the technology superhighway we built to access consumption and a market in a city. It all depends on, obviously, the right partnership and an alignment between the parties.”
Next – the tech buildout
Following a successful fundraise in 2019, Proof & Co is now embarking upon a programme to introduce high level technology that will make the process even more efficient. Tagging and tracking of the containers (yes, they are considering blockchain here) will allow an unprecedented degree of monitoring and control over the supply chain from end to end, leading to efficiency of inventory management as well as being able to trace any incidence of contamination and put a stop to the counterfeiting of product.
“You’ve got real time data across the network showing inventory levels, throughput of liquid, depletion data all the way down to the end customer,” says Gabie.
All good cocktails come with a garnish – slice of lemon, stick of olives – and Proof & Co has added its own flourish to the product- an extra sustainability step.
“For every ecoTOTE ordered by a partner – a venue bar or restaurant – one tree is planted in their name” says Gabie. “So they get quarterly carbon reporting, both from their waste savings in terms of glass eliminated but also for any trees planted on their behalf. They get to claim full credit for the tree planting and any of their carbon or environmental reporting to their guests, their stakeholders and shareholders.”
*Data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis