Have you ever felt guilty about dumping that heavy wine bottle in the trash?  Even if you live in a community that requires separation of recyclables from general trash, the sad fact is that the bottle usually ends up in the landfill anyway–or worse places.  There just isn’t enough value in recycling that glass–unless you paid a deposit on that wine bottle.  If you did, the CRV (California Redemption Value) paid you 10 cents per bottle if you took it to a recycling center.  That worked for sodas, beer and juices, but surprisingly it was not required for wine–until now. Starting this year, bottles of wine require a 5 or 10 cent deposit under new legislation (SB1013), depending on the size of the bottle. But usually what happens is that those bottles get crushed and remelted to make new bottles.  Better, but still it seems like a waste compared to washing and reusing the bottles.

Caren McNamara founded Conscious Containers in 2017 to attack this problem head-on, and now with the new law she has been able to make some significant headway.  She wants to collect those wine bottles, wash them and send them back to the wineries to be refilled.  Seems like a simple idea.  In fact, in the first half of the last century, that is exactly how soda bottles, beer bottles, and milk bottles were handled.  Why did that stop?  It turned out that there was a lot of breakage in collecting the empties, and the public was concerned about the hygiene of reusing bottles.  Energy was cheap.  Raw materials were abundant.  It was so much easier and simpler to just make new ones.  In particular, you could do away with the need to pay for the labor-intensive collection and cleaning of used bottles.

What is different now? Energy is not so cheap.  People are increasingly unwilling to just dump things in a landfill, and there is a bounty on collecting used bottles. Caren hopes that by focusing on the wine industry as it becomes especially sensitive to the waste problem, there will be substantial support for her recycling and reuse efforts. There are 3.7 billion wine bottles filled in California each year.  

Based in Truckee, Conscious Container’s 5-member team will focus on the medium-size wineries in Sonoma and Napa.  The first planned facility will have the capacity to handle 56,000 bottles per year, a modest start.  They have already seen interest from these smaller bottlers in dealing with dozens of pallets with bottles collecting dust, waiting for a way to clean them and get them back to the production line.  With their initial angel funding, they established their proof of concept.

A big hurdle has been locating sources of patient capital to buy industrial washing equipment and get more space.   Caren stresses the importance of finding investors who possess a genuine understanding of the problem at hand and understand that establishing the infrastructure needed will require long time frames to reach profitability.  She has been focusing on more philanthropic sources of capital, such as donor-advised funds.  Her forecasts show reaching a break-even in three years.

“Some of the things I have learned as I’ve gone through the process is the importance of really surrounding yourself with talented and different people. You have to check all the key boxes, and if you don’t know something, finding someone to fill them in is crucial.” 

Caren has also learned the importance of serendipity:  “Sometimes things will walk in the door with huge opportunities you never saw coming.”  The key is to be ready to take advantage of them.

Conscious Container Founder

Conscious Container founder Caren McNamara discusses reusing bottles during an April 12 Napa RISE Wine & Climate Symposium workshop. Photo Katherine Martine

Tzvi Weber

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tzvi Weber is the Data Manager at CleanStart, a nonprofit cleantech hub focused on supporting small businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators in the clean technology sector. With a background in data management, Tzvi plays a crucial role in organizing and analyzing data to help CleanStart achieve its mission of promoting sustainability and clean technology. His expertise contributes to the organization's efforts to foster growth and innovation in the clean energy industry.

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