the dreaded styrofoam wine shippers

Sunday, October 23, 2011

More than a decade ago, I began sending out this request with my basic wine shipping address and contact information. Please – No styrofoam!!! I pleaded. Use cardboard shippers. Do not use any form of popcorn, even the stuff that is biodegradable.

At the time, believe it or not, this was revolutionary. I had only seen a couple of examples of recycled cardboard shippers. But I was already FED UP with the styrofoam stuff. A few boxes (about a day’s worth of samples) would fill up the trunk of my car. I’d collect them and drive them to wine shops that would re-use them for shipping wine to someone else, who’d then be stuck with them. Kind of like the Christmas fruitcake that gets passed from house to house every year.

It soon became apparent that I couldn’t keep up. The amount of time I spend opening boxes, sorting wines, moving wines, organizing wines in tasting flights, opening wines, dumping wines, cleaning bottles, recycling bottles, breaking down cardboard boxes, recycling cardboard boxes is beyond belief. And none of that is time paid for, or gas paid for, or mileage paid for. The actual work – tasting wines, making notes, polishing notes, entering notes in the various articles and databases – that is even more time consuming.

So it struck me that perhaps I could shave a little time off the clock, and do something good for the environment, by requesting that no one ship me wines in styrofoam.

Slowly but surely, it has worked. At first a trickle, then a stream, and now a flood – after years and years of effort the vast majority of wines are shipped in recycled cardboard.

BUT – there are still those wineries that insist on styro. Because – they insist – it’s safer. It offers better protection. And up until now I had no retort. I could only point to my own practical experience. After hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of wine shipped in cardboard, I have never – not once – received damaged wine. Not a single bottle baked, not a single cork popped, not a single bottle broken.

But the real coup de grâce came in an e-mail a few weeks ago from McCrea Cellars’ Bob Neel. Bob is an engineer and scientist by trade, and he has the science facts at his fingertips. He wrote to confirm that my suspicions were completely true. Here’s what he said:

“GOOD FOR YOU!!! I can't believe people still use the stuff [styrofoam]. What cracks me up is the totally false notion that it protects the wine better. I'm about to write a letter to the editors of [XX Monthly] disabusing them of some key misconceptions that they sometimes claim:
1. Better thermal protection – Yeah, it takes longer for the wines to heat up inside that dark brown UPS truck, but then styro keeps them hot longer after the truck cools down. No net benefit. (This has been proven with experiments using instrumented shipments.)
2. (and this is a biggie). Better protection for the bottles. TOTAL B---S--T. The most damaging kind of mechanical stress occurs under the conditions of impact. It represents a very high spike of force, exerted over a very short duration. It actually amplifies the input energy by concentrating it. Example: you can shake the holy crap out of a wine glass without breaking it, but just don't drop it onto a hard surface – even gently (by ‘shake’ I mean a back-and-forth motion that simulates sinusoidal input.)
So what happens when you load up your $120/bottle of [cult cab] into styro? Pick up the box and shake it and guess what – it RATTLES. Each rattle is an impact. Brutally tough on the contents. No, it won't break the bottle because styro is a softer surface, but it sends a shock wave though the wine. Each rattle is a new shock wave.
And with the pulp shippers? Shake like crazy and nothing. Therefore no energy amplification/concentration. Actually, the pulp is soft enough to provide a bit of cushioning that absorbs some of the energy.”

So – one more convincing reason to put an end to shipping in styro. If heat is an issue, styro won’t help. Ship wines at appropriate times of the year, and use cardboard shippers. Every wine writer on the planet will thank you. And most importantly – so will the planet.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While of no help to you, there is a styrofoam recycling center near Ikea in Renton... those of us in the Seattle area have an option for disposing of this stuff.

check www.styrorecycle.com for more info

Anonymous said...

Paul,

While I'm not a fan of styro, I've never had a bottle that has been broken in sytro. I have had multiple shipments in pulp that have included broken bottles. My (admittedly anecdotal) experience hasn't been good with the robustness of pulp shippers.

Also, I think I'm missing the point of Bob Neel's comments above about protection. He notes that the sytro will keep the bottle from breaking -- isn't that the point? Or is he implying that the shock waves from the "rattling" will permanently damage the wine inside even if the bottle is intact?

PaulG said...

Bob is quoting the main proponents of styro and responding. You are confusing the claim with his response.

Anonymous said...

The best option to molded EPS (styrofoam) is 100% recycled (with at least 90% post consumer waste) corrugated shippers. Stronger and way better presentation than molded fiber pulp (recycled newspaper). Visit www.paksource.com and click on the WineShield tab.

Sally HP said...

My wine club uses the cardboard, and I've not had any break. I like it (and re-used it to ship some Washington Wine to a friend :))

Greg said...

I have to disagree slightly about the thermal protection of styro. It is true that if left long enough in heat, wine bottles will reach the same thermal equilibrium with the environment.

But styro has a longer thermal time constant than cardboard. This goes as tau_thermal = C_thermal/G_thermal, the heat capacitance--thermal load provided by the wine--over the thermal conductance of the shipper. If you have a case or more of wine in styro, it will be quite resistant to heating up over a short time.

In the case of shipping in weather where day or night temps temporarily go into the danger zone (< 30 or > 80), a long thermal time constant will help keep the wine from hitting a critical temperature. For shipping one or a few bottles, the thermal load is not going to be worth it. And there is the obvious environmental issue. But for large shipments with temperature transients, there is an argument for styro.

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