Every so often a packaging format comes along that captures the public’s – or, at least, the mainstream media’s – imagination. This year, there have been three. First was the pack that gave a two-week shelf life to on-the-go sandwiches. Then it was Crown Closures’ rethinking of the jam jar lid.
And in the last month, it has been the paper wine bottle. Presented to the world at the start of November by its inventor Martin Myerscough’s GreenBottle startup, the concept – which is based on a two part pulp-based outer with a rigid plastic closure and a flexible plastic inner bag – has been covered everywhere from The Observer to South African radio.
When I meet Myerscough at GreenBottle’s headquarters – an unassuming unit on a small business park in the Suffolk riverside town of Woodbridge – he is at the end of a week of press duties that will wind up the following day with a piece for the local TV station.
While the wine bottle is the latest invention, Myerscough’s better known product is the milk bottle that is being sold through a small number of Asda stores; the 100,000th unit has recently been produced at GreenBottle’s factory in Cornwall. The numbers are small fry compared to the millions of HDPE milk bottles sold each week. But it’s a start, and the wider industry is, it seems, taking note.
You are a trained shipbuilder, not a packaging designer – so how did the GreenBottle concept come about?
Five years ago I was talking one day to the guy who owns a local landfill site. He told me that the biggest problem he had was plastic bottles; because often people leave the caps on, they wouldn’t crush, so he was filling his landfill with air. I did some research and couldn’t believe no-one was looking at a paper alternative.
GreenBottle is clearly starting to find a niche, albeit a small one for now. Why do you think consumers like it?
Any product is complex, but my feeling is that people understand this. For many people, packaging isn’t considered a good thing. The challenge for consumers is finding things that help the green agenda, but it has to be a local thing where they feel they can do their bit.
The GreenBottle is made from mixed materials, as you have the plastic cap and inner bag. Why do you think consumers will break it down rather than just throw it all in the bin?
They do with cereal boxes, which have a cardboard outer and plastic inner. I don’t think this is any different.
What challenges have you faced?
One thing is that it doesn’t have great standout. In the milk category, our buyers are saying it should stay white, but we are looking at options to move it to two colours, where each half is a different colour. That starts to tell a story.
You’re just starting to establish GreenBottle in the milk sector. Why now go for wine too?
For one thing, it weighs 55 grams rather than 500, and there are no problems with breakage. From a logistics point of view, the weight means you can get three GreenBottles onto a truck for every two glass bottles of wine. The other issue is values, and we are doing tests at the moment to see where you can charge more for a bottle than in the milk sector; in some areas we may be able to sell it for a premium, and clearly a higher-value product like wine helps.
This isn’t your first business venture. What’s your approach to a new project like this?
I just get up one day and do it – then work out how to do it as I go along. It’s the only way to get things done. If you line up all your ducks in a row before you start, you’ll never do anything. For instance, we first started sourcing the machinery from Scandinavia, but the technology didn’t work. It turned out that we would have to make our own machines. So we did. We now build our machines in Manchester, which keeps it in-house and also in the UK. That’s important – the green economy is the next industrial revolution and it’s a great opportunity for the UK.
How did you move from shipbuilding to being a packaging entrepreneur?
Shipbuilding was an industry in chronic decline. I had a few jobs and then at the age of 30, talked my way into accountancy. I had a lot of rich clients and I envied their freedom. I realised that the only way to get that was to work for myself. I started a biotechnology business with a friend, which we ended up selling. I’ve also been involved in developing a washing machine and a stapler, and in an art investment fund. For me, the fun bit of a business is the early stages, starting it up.
As a relative newcomer to packaging, then, what are your biggest impressions so far?
For one thing, waste management is a shambles – every council has a different system. How is that joined up thinking? In my view, separate boxes for recycling are far better than the MRFs. But the councils have signed 25-year deals. The poor consumer is stuck in the middle.
What’s next for GreenBottle?
In milk, the next stage with Asda is to roll it out across the country. Asda has been a great champion of this technology. We are developing a machine that will produce 50 bottles per minute, so double the current speed. That’s the thing that hasn’t allowed us to expand much in the last few months. But we’re now looking at new areas, like water, wine, juice, engine oil and laundry products. It’s an exciting time.