Challenges unimaginable only a short time ago can be met through human ingenuity and collaboration. Today, factories are operating around the clock to meet the urgent demand for glass vials for coronavirus vaccines. Packaging glass companies are also facing an increasing market demand for a circular packaging solution that ensures superior taste and quality preservation.
Adeline Farrelly is the General Secretary of FEVE – the European Federation of Packaging Glass.
To fight against climate change and decarbonization, companies are reinventing the way they produce glass containers and promoting energy efficiency. Regarding the decarbonization challenge, one possible solution being developed for the glass industry is a world-first technology called “Furnace for the Future” (F4F). This is a flagship initiative that shows what can be achieved when people come together.
Furnace for the Future (F4F) will help Europe become a world leader in decarbonising the industry. It will move large container glass furnaces away from fossil fuels and switch to renewable electricity.
This requires ingenious breakthrough technology, federated through collaboration between major players in the fight against climate change. The 19 independent companies behind the F4F project represent more than 90% of the total production of glass packaging in Europe.
F4F will be on a scale never seen before. Electric furnaces typically produce 100 tonnes of glass per day. F4F could increase that to 350 tonnes per day. Much smaller furnaces using electricity to melt glass already exist, but only for clear or green glass and a limited amount of recycled material. F4F would melt large quantities of “amber” glass (protecting the product from UV radiation), which until now was difficult to melt electrically, and would considerably increase the use of recycled glass in electric furnaces. Such a furnace has never been built before and we have to develop the know-how to produce a glass that meets the needs of the customers.
Developing climate neutral societies means significant disruption. Deploying the industry’s decarbonization strategies will require enormous efforts. But climate neutrality is a clearly achievable goal for glass packaging. Much work has already been done. Over the past century, the amount of energy used to produce a ton of glass has been reduced by 80%, with a corresponding drop in carbon emissions.
Glass packaging is essential for the food, pharmaceutical, perfume and cosmetics industries. This is the kind of material that consumers increasingly expect to see today.
Glass has unique advantages when it comes to durability. It is reusable and infinitely recyclable in a closed loop. Glass is inert, that is, it does not react with its contents and does not release substances into the packaged product. That is why glass containers can be used for food or medicine without presenting any health risks. And in terms of employment, more than 125,000 people work directly or indirectly for the glass packaging value chain across Europe.
Judging by one of these criteria, glass is the perfect packaging. Furnace for the Future will help solve the final and crucial problem of decarbonization. EU countries have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and to reduce carbon emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by the end of 2030. This is a social change that everyone, from citizens to industry to government, must support by working together and finding new approaches.
It should not be forgotten that the availability and the price of renewable energies vary greatly from one country to another. The electrification of glass production should therefore not be the only way to decarbonize. We must have several solutions in hand, to adapt to different scenarios and geographies. For the packaging glass industry, this means a continued focus on digitization, energy efficiency and emerging carbon-free energy sources like hydrogen and biomass. F4F, built by Ardagh in Obernkirchen, Germany, is already going one step further as it is a demonstration project, and it could directly produce glass containers for commercial markets from 2023.
This is why the industrial coalition of 19 companies from 23 countries is asking the European Commission’s emission trading system innovation fund program to support this highly innovative European project.
A switch to electricity powered solely by renewable energies would mean a long way to decarbonize the production of glass packaging. But that’s only part of the plan for packaging glass. About 80% of our carbon emissions come from the combustion of natural gas used to melt glass. The remaining 20% comes from virgin raw materials used to make glass due to the breakdown of carbonates.
To reduce this 20%, we must switch from virgin raw materials to recycled glass, which today represents around 52% of the raw material used for packaging glass in Europe. To reduce emissions from raw materials, we need to go even further with the switch from virgin raw materials to recycled glass.
This is why a cross-sectoral project called Close the Glass Loop sets a target for Europe to collect and recycle 90% of glass packaging, up from 76% today. Close the Glass Loop also encourages the development of better quality recycled glass, so that more recycled content can be used in new products. These initiatives will help fight carbon emissions from glass materials.
We are living through strange and difficult days. Days that test our resourcefulness and our ability to work together. Let’s not forget to raise a glass to that!