The Absolut Company has created its glass vodka bottle using 50% recycled material four years ahead of its schedule. George Lewis spoke to Tina Robertsson* about how it was achieved and hear more about the company’s other sustainability goals.

In February 2021, the Absolut Company announced that it had reached the target of using 50% recycled material in its clear glass vodka bottle in collaboration with manufacturer Ardagh Group, four years ahead of schedule.

But the company isn’t stopping there and through its ambitious internal goals, it aims to have a carbon neutral product by 2030 at the latest.

Tina Robertsson, who heads up the Sustainability Performance team at the Absolut Company, based in Åhus, Sweden said the company decided to increase its recycled content in 2016 by 10% from 36%. The goal was to increase by 1% at a time.

When the 40% target was reached in 2019, she said the whole company was ‘really proud’ and to commemorate this milestone, created the ‘Absolut Comeback’ bottle, a bottle using actual pieces of broken, recycled glass which was also designed to look like it was made of recycled material.

Absolut hoped that this bottle’s design would enhance the image of using recycled glass in the bottle and was a collaboration between design agency Drama Queen Communications, Absolut bottle manufacturer Ardagh and Absolut.

But Absolut did not stop at 40% and when Pernod Ricard, which owns the Absolut brand, set its target of 50% to 2025 for its coloured and clear glass, Mrs Robertsson said Absolut took this on as its own goal as well.

Absolut did feel it would be a tough goal to reach as it may reduce the clarity of glass. But after its teams got together and realised there was no reduction in clarity and quality, the company became more ambitious.

Sweden is known to be one of, if not the best in the world at collecting and recycling glass which results in high quality recycled glass that lets Absolut continue to recycle above 50%.

Mrs Robertsson said: “We were quite surprised it was so easy (to reach 50%). We have already taken the decision to increase by 3%.” This campaign to reach 53% will start sometime in spring of 2021.

“We’ve decided, what’s the worst that can happen? We will continue for as long as we can. We know there will be a limit at some point, we’re just not sure where that is yet.”

“To achieve what we want to achieve, to reduce climate impact overall, we must collaborate with suppliers, manufacturers, societies/associations, everything, it is crucial,” she added.

It is not only in the manufacturing process that Absolut are looking to improve on. It also wants to have a target of having a climate neutral distillery without offsetting by 2025, using other solutions rather than using the liquified petroleum gas (LPG) it currently uses.

Mrs Robertsson said that once this has been offset, alongside production there are three other topics Absolut wishes to improve on – wheat cultivation, packaging and distribution, which will all be worked on in parallel.

“We want to have zero output and we think it can happen. We are going to have a climate neutral product by 2030”, she stated.

Absolut has been looking at making its distillery more sustainable since back in 2004 when it first installed energy efficient equipment. Throughout the following years it has been able to do things like recompress the steam generated for reuse, meaning energy use is minimised.

Mrs Robertsson said that for every 1kwh of new energy applied, the equivalent of 5kwh of steam is generated, meaning it is extremely efficient.

Since 2013, it has bought renewable electricity for the distillery and has been near to being climate neutral since then, with only a small amount of fossil fuel offset, something it wishes to eradicate completely by 2025.

Absolut has a longstanding relationship with the Ardagh Group, which has manufactured its glass bottles in one place since 1979 in Limmared, Sweden. The bottles that are created are then distributed to 120 markets around the world.

Mrs Robertsson explained: “We work very closely with our supplier in Limmared within the Ardagh Group. It’s a really great collaboration which we’ve had since day one.”

Due to this relationship that has lasted over 40 years, the two companies are able to ‘challenge’ each other in order to collaborate on other sustainability goals.

Mrs Robertsson said: “If they are going to provide us with good quality (glass bottles), then we must design the bottles in a way that is possible to be recycled well (using Sweden’s high quality recycling scheme). It’s so important to have the close connection and possibility to change things.”

Absolut has had recycled materials in its production since the Swedish recycling scheme started in 1984 which has been increasing year-on-year.

Absolut uses a third of all the country’s clear recycled glass and all of this cullet is reused in Ardagh’s Limmared glass plant.

Within this relationship, Absolut and Limmared have made a climate roadmap which includes a cold furnace rebuild in either 2025 or 2026.

Ardagh has the ambition to use the Best Available Technology (BAT) when making the cold repair in Limmared in 2025/26.

This furnace repair will coincide with the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE’s) ‘Furnace for the Future’ (F4F) project, which is hoped will cut direct furnace CO2 emissions, and replace a major part of the natural gas with renewable electricity.

The potential CO2 reduction of this innovation is potentially even higher if it can be subsequently combined with other sources of energy such as hydrogen or biogas.

Ardagh Group has volunteered to lead a coalition of 19 independent companies representing over 90% of the total glass container production in Europe (more than 80 billion containers yearly). Ardagh Group will build the F4F furnace and run it in Obernkirchen, Lower Saxony, Germany.

Glass packaging stands for around a third of Absolut’s footprint and it hopes that cutting CO2 emissions from the furnace will be a big step forward in its roadmap to reach zero impact.

Mrs Robertsson also believes that using BAT in the renovation of the furnace, and using renewable fuels, along with increasing the proportion of recycled glass and other measures will be an important part of its roadmap.

She explained that Pernod Ricard has included in its commitments to 2030 that it ‘will be part of schemes to increase recycling rates in our 10 largest markets’.

She said that Pernod Ricard are pushing for change just like Absolut and is constantly look at ways to make changes such as using less raw materials and more cullet.

But along with Pernod Ricard aiming for a more sustainable future, these goals also come from the Ardagh Group, with it very much a prominent part of the F4F project.

Why glass?

When asked why Absolut is always in glass, Mrs Robertsson explained that because glass is inert, it doesn’t affect the vodka and its taste. She said that ‘glass is an excellent material – but you need to recycle it’ and understands the need to work on its carbon footprint and energy efficiency within its manufacturing.

The future

Mrs Robertsson said the company is well aware of the environmental aspects of its bottle and believes that ‘if you don’t work with sustainability as a topic of great importance you may not survive, you need to be on top of it’.

“We believe that to enjoy things is also good to be sustainable as well”, she added.

Pernod Ricard hopes to have piloted five new circular ways of distributing its wine & spirits by 2030 and wants to help increase recycling rates in the top 10 largest markets with low recycling levels.

It has set up or joined various programmes worldwide to improve recycling or reuse packaging, including in Europe where it has contributed approximately €8 million to national schemes designed to improve the collection and recycling of domestic packaging, including glass.

Both Absolut and Pernod Ricard have also joined the US’s Glass Recycling Coalition to ‘foster efficient and economically viable recycling channels by involving all players in the chain’, including glass manufacturers, bottlers, recycling service providers, and in Brazil, Pernod Ricard has joined the “Glass is Good” project, whose purpose is to increase the glass recycling rate by involving all sectorial players.

“The important message is - recycle! And that everyone understands recycling, including glass manufacturers, politicians, people, everyone”, Mrs Robertsson explained.

She believes that some customers don’t have a full understanding of the need to be more sustainable yet but thinks through Absolut, Pernod Ricard and the Ardagh Group it can positively affect them and hopes external campaigns and providing ambitious goals can really make a difference.

*Director of Sustainable Performance

The Absolut Company, Åhus, Sweden