Why there was a revolution in the glass making process

Why there was a revolution in the glass making process

I was handed an elegant pear-shaped bottle with an intricate leaf pattern reaching the neck.

Although empty, heavy.

I asked how much a bottle costs. “About ¬£270,” I was told. I handed the bottle back – very carefully.

The bottle, designed for rare whiskies, is one of the creations of Stoelzle Flaconnage, based in Knottingley, West Yorkshire. Glassware has been made on this site since 1871.

In 1994 the factory was taken over by Austria’s Stoelzle Glass Group, which has focused the factory on making bottles for the liquor industry.

It can handle design, bottle making and decoration all in one site.

Demand is strong, helped by a boom in gin making and demand for whiskey in Asia. When I visited, the factory was bustling, chunks of molten glass falling into dozens of molds, the glass still glowing orange from the heat of the furnace.

To stand out in a crowded market, customers want distinctive bottles, with patterned and sometimes colored glass, labels and intricate artwork.

“What our customers are looking for is for their products to be presented in an unusual – sometimes iconic – way,” says Thomas Riss, chief executive of Stoelzle Flaconnage.

While business is booming, Stoelzle Flaconnage – and other glassmakers – have to make some big decisions about how they make their glass containers.

The European Union is cracking down on packaging waste. It wants the packaging to be lighter so less material is needed and less fuel is needed for transportation.

It has been working on the Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), which is in the final stages of approval.

Under the rules, member states have to reduce the weight of packaging and have to introduce measures to meet the target.

There is concern in the glass container industry that it will be unfairly targeted because glass is relatively heavy, compared to plastic or aluminum.

“Light does not mean sustainable,” says Vanessa Chesnot, of FEVE, the industry body representing European glass container makers.

“Glass is 100% and infinitely recyclable… so, you can recycle whiskey bottles into other bottles, forever basically.”

While it is true that glass recycling is a predetermined process, making glass, even using recycled materials, requires energy.

Most glass making involves burning natural gas to heat the raw material in a furnace to 1,500C. Burning gas and heating raw materials both produce CO2.

The furnace I saw in action at Stoelzle Flaconnage uses about 191,000 kWh of energy per day – that’s enough to supply the average UK household with energy for 12 years, the company says.

It is considered a relatively small furnace; larger plants will have furnaces twice the size.

What’s more, the glass furnace never shuts down, as it takes 12 days for the furnace to reach its operating temperature. Basically the furnace will run all day, every day for its operational life – usually between ten and 12 years.

Therefore, the glass industry is looking to switch from gas-fired furnaces to electricity.

If the electricity comes from a sustainable source then the carbon footprint is reduced, which can help glass firms achieve their goal of being net zero by 2050.

What does net zero mean?
Until a few years ago, running a furnace on electricity was considered too expensive. But electricity prices have become more competitive, so glassmakers are looking to make the switch.

Stoelzle Flaconnage, plans to install an electric furnace at Knottingley by 2026.

“When I spoke to my engineers, five years ago, none of them would come up with the idea of an electric furnace, because the math didn’t make sense. But this has changed now,” said Mr. Riss.

However, electric furnaces may not be an option for companies that produce large quantities of containers, such as beer bottles. Although electric furnaces can be made quite large, the extra expense of electricity will cost them.

“At the moment it [electric furnace technology] is being developed mainly for niche markets or small furnaces that produce high added value products,” said FEVE’s director of environment, health and safety, Fabrice Rivet.

An additional challenge for electric glass furnaces is installing them. The connection to the electricity grid often needs to be upgraded, to accommodate the additional electricity supply.

But the glass industry is trying to clear some of those barriers.

In Obernkirchen, in northern Germany, the world’s most advanced hybrid glass furnace is undergoing testing, at Ardagh Glass Packaging (AGP).

Partly funded by the German and EU governments, and made by the German company Sorg, it is a massive furnace with a capacity of 350 tonnes – enough to produce around a million bottles of beer a day.

When fully operational it will use 80% sustainable electricity and 20% gas, which AGP says will save 45,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Engineers at AGP are putting the furnace to the ultimate test – making amber colored glass, which involves complicated chemistry and is more difficult to control than making clear glass.

“There are no successful demonstrations of full-scale amber glass production in full electric melting. And if you want to combine maximum carbon footprint reduction with high cullet (recycled glass) and amber glass, then hybrid is the logical choice,” says Joris Goossens, manager research and development projects at AGP.

AGP says that once the hybrid furnace has proven itself, then the next step could be replacing natural gas with hydrogen.

Even if the industry makes the switch to electric or hybrid furnaces, it still has other problems to solve.

The raw materials needed to make glass, including sand, soda ash and limestone, release CO2 as they are heated. They account for about 20% of the carbon emissions of the glass manufacturing process.

The industry hopes that using more recycled glass in the production process will reduce those emissions, but getting enough unwanted glass is a challenge.

An academic who has studied the packaging industry says the answer may simply be using less glass.

In a paper published in 2020, Alice Brock, a PhD researcher at Southampton University, compared the environmental impact of glass, plastic and aluminum containers and found that glass had the worst impact on the environment.

“Even recycled glass has a very high energy demand,” he said.

“The hierarchy of waste is reduce, reuse, recycle. We should have less packaging, or we should reuse packaging, or we should recycle if necessary,” he said.

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