There are sound environmental and commercial reasons for increasing the bulk importation of wine into the UK, and producing wine bottles from lighter weight glass. And contrary to some misconceptions, writes Sally Easton, importing wine in bulk need not mean a drop in quality or even a lower image with the consumer.

Importing wine in bulk may, to some, be suggestive of cheap and low-quality product. but this would be a misconception, particularly in the light of technical advances in bulk shipping. Moreover, there are compelling commercial and, more crucially perhaps, environmental reasons why the UK wine trade might look to increase the percentage of wine being imported in bulk.

The UK imports the equivalent of nearly 1.2bn bottles of wine a year. That's a lot of glass, and most of it is green. And it's more than the country is currently capable of recycling effectively.

Andy Dawe, glass technology manager at the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), said: "Currently, demand by glass packaging manufacturers for recycled green glass containers is limited because 63% of UK production is in flint (clear glass), mainly for spirits bottles and food containers - not green glass for wine bottles." He believes the challenge is to get the glass market into better balance. "We need less green glass coming in, and more demand for green glass in the UK."

Even with about 15% of UK wine imports already arriving in bulk, there is still much more green glass coming into the UK than the country can (re-)use in domestic manufacture. And it's estimated that, by 2008, the UK will produce 1.1m tonnes of green glass waste. At the moment, the glass manufacturing industry is recycling about 350,000 tonnes in domestic manufacture.

One simple answer therefore is to increase the amount of wine shipped into the UK in bulk and then bottled here. And, while one might imagine that this could damage a wine's consumer image, there is no evidence to suggest that wine consumers, particularly in the mass market, have that much appreciation of where a wine is actually bottled, as long as it has a good price/quality ratio. In terms of actual quality, technical advances in the transport of bulk wine mean that quality control issues are much more tightly controlled. One need only look at the advances in quality control of bag-in-box wine sold in the UK, much of which is imported in bulk.

It is the bottling process itself which is crucial. If this is done well in the UK, the stability of the wine can be assured, in just the same way as it can be compromised if it is done badly in the country of origin.

WRAP has conducted extensive research, providing compelling economic and environmental evidence in support of increasing bulk importation. Primarily, more bulk importing would reduce transport costs, providing both commercial and environmental benefits.

According to Dawe, an additional 10% switch to bulk importing means 55,000 fewer tonnes of glass are imported, equivalent to 3,100 container-loads. As green glass bottles can be made using 90% recycled glass, 50,000 tonnes are therefore absorbed from the 1.1m tonnes of current green glass wastage, in addition to the 55,000 tonnes of green glass which are not imported into the UK in the first place.

There are also other environmental implications. David Workman, director general of British Glass, said: "Virgin batches of glass melt at much higher temperature than recycled glass, so you save about 17% energy by using recycled glass. And we reduce the need for quarrying. And we have reduced landfill. This meets three government environmental targets in one go: reduced carbon dioxide production, energy efficiency, and resource efficiency." Every tonne of recycled glass which is reused to make new bottles saves a quarter of a tonne of carbon dioxide compared to using virgin materials.

Furthermore, in general terms, the use of lighter weight glass bottles - wherever the wine is bottled - provides additional cost, transport and environmental benefits. Research commissioned by WRAP found the average weight of a glass wine bottle to be 500g. Interestingly, even some wines below GBP5 a bottle were found to weigh as much as 800g.

WRAP project manager Nicola Jenkin said: "It is quite easy to take 20% of the weight out of glass without consumers even noticing it." A project initiated by Dutch brewer Grolsch removed 15% of the weight from bottles and saw sales completely unaffected by the saving in packaging. It also took 4,500 tonnes of glass out of the system.

Giving the example of a top-selling Chardonnay brand, Jenkin said: "If this moved to a 300g bottle (still bottled at source), you could save GBP77,000 [transport] and GBP20,500 [distribution] and 270 tonnes of glass not used."

However, these savings are dwarfed by the potential return if the producer and importer took the bold decision to import in bulk. If the same wine was shipped in bulk and bottled in the UK in 300g bottles, the estimated savings are over GBP200,000, with carbon dioxide savings of over 1,000 tonnes.

Andy Sagar, managing director of UK bottler Kingsland Wines & Spirits, said: "With our UK glass partners we have developed a range of bottles which meet the key requirements of our customers. This involves "right-weighting" glass bottles which enable retailers to hit key price points. All new light-weighted designs are rigorously trialled and tested before introduction."

Other cost benefits to consider include lower common custom tariff (CCT) from third countries, and the ability for importers to avoid 15% packaging and waste contribution, as the wine is arriving into the UK unpackaged.

But will consumers buy bulk imported wine and wine in lighter weight bottles? They already buy a lot of wine that's bottled in the UK and the Grolsch example suggests lightweighting isn't an issue. It's not as though the premium sector of the market is being targeted for this initiative. Nearly 90% of the UK off-trade is sold under GBP5 a bottle, and 65% is sold at under GBP4 a bottle. Analysis by WRAP also showed there was little correlation between bottle weight and retail price among bottles they surveyed under GBP6.

Dawe said: "Our research proves that the increased use of bulk importing would provide huge cost and environmental benefits. We have created detailed models which clearly demonstrate these cost benefits and have started discussing these with industry."

Peter Godden, manager of the Industry Development and Support Group of the AWRI (Australian Wine Research Institute), believes the convincing nature of the arguments could well persuade producers and importers to embrace change. Godden said: "The economics and environmental imperatives look so strong that I think that there will be substantial change over the next few years."