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Pandemic supply-chain issues now mean a shortage of glass jars and bottles

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We have another story now about supply chain bottlenecks, this one involving actual bottles. It's a case study of how pandemic shortages and transportation tie-ups are making even a commonplace container hard to come by, and it's driving up prices for everything from bourbon to barbecue sauce. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In the world of global commerce, Daniel Liberson is a pretty small fish. He's the owner and self-described vinegar geek at Lindera Farms in Delaplane, Va.

DANIEL LIBERSON: We're a tiny, little artisanal producer of shelf-stable, sustainable pantry goods.

HORSLEY: Liberson makes vinegar seasoned with hand-foraged wild onions and hot sauce from heirloom peppers grown on nearby farms. The supply of ingredients can be fickle depending on the weather and local growing conditions. But he's never had to worry about finding bottles to package his products until now.

LIBERSON: The whims of nature are less daunting than the whims of what is supposed to be an organized, structured supply chain. But here we are.

HORSLEY: Demand for bottles has outstripped supply in recent months, and Liberson found himself at the back of the line, pushed aside as suppliers cater to customers placing bigger orders. He was finally able to find bottles in Italy. They're now on a cargo ship headed to the East Coast. He's just hoping they'll arrive in time for the busy holiday season, which typically accounts for about half his annual sales.

LIBERSON: There's a captain of a shipping vessel who holds my life in his hands. Basically, if anything goes wrong with the shipment, I'm screwed.

HORSLEY: And Liberson's not the only one in this leaky supply chain boat. Chief Economist David Ozgo of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says some distilleries are also having a hard time packaging their whiskey and rye, which could lead to the occasional bare shelf in the liquor store.

DAVID OZGO: We're definitely hearing that there's a shortage of bottles. We encourage anybody that wants a special bottle for Christmas to start shopping for it now because you might have to make two or three trips to your local retailer.

HORSLEY: So how does this happen? Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, insists American glass makers are still churning out plenty of bottles.

SCOTT DEFIFE: There is no shortage of the raw materials to make glass in this country, and the plants are all operating at full capacity to make new glass containers.

HORSLEY: But 20 to 30% of the bottles used in the U.S. are typically imported from Europe or Asia, so part of the problem is transportation. A lot of bottles may be stuck in the same cargo traffic jam that's holding up so many other imports. And because domestic glass plants are already running at full steam, customers whose imported bottles are delayed may have a hard time finding substitutes at the last minute.

DEFIFE: Demand is high. Logistics are slightly out of whack. There's import congestion. And production is fairly well operating at max capacity. So put those things together, and there's going to be some wrinkles.

HORSLEY: What's more, those wrinkles can feed on each other. Just ask Paul Guglielmo, who makes and bottles a signature line of pasta sauce in Rochester, N.Y.

PAUL GUGLIELMO: We were told at least twice that a specific jar wouldn't be available for at least a month. The strain it puts on us is you get scared that you're not going to be able to find the materials. And so how do you react? Well, you react by buying more of it.

HORSLEY: Remember how people panic-purchased toilet paper last year? That kind of stockpiling can make shortages worse while also driving up the price. Pasta sauce jars that used to cost Guglielmo 33 cents apiece now cost 47 cents, a 42% increase before he sliced his first tomato. Guglielmo swallowed some of that increase, but he's also raised his own prices in the grocery store.

GUGLIELMO: I think the whole way down the supply chain, everyone makes that decision. And they decide, are we going to eat all of this, are we going to eat some of it, or are we going to pass all of it?

HORSLEY: The stockpile of empty jars in Guglielmo's warehouse helps him sleep better at night, but it also cost a lot of money that he'd just as soon not have tied up.

GUGLIELMO: I walk by pallets and pallets and pallets of unused glass, and we're going to use it. And I want it here. You know, it should be here. But I look at it as just a big pile of cash sitting there, you know?

HORSLEY: Liberson, the small-scale vinegar maker, can't afford to keep that kind of inventory on hand even if he could locate the bottles. Right now he's sitting on big vats of vinegar and hot sauce with fingers crossed that his bottles arrive in time for the holidays.

LIBERSON: Listen. I'm a neurotic Jewish guy, and I got to tell you, you know, heart attack-inducing is the word that comes to mind.

HORSLEY: If you do find your local store is out of your favorite vinegar, bourbon or pasta sauce this winter, Guglielmo says please try to be patient.

GUGLIELMO: We're trying. I promise the people that are in the supply chain are working very, very hard. There is no part of anyone that I know of that is sitting down with their feet kicked up, saying, I don't feel like working right now. You know, that's not happening. People are working all day very hard.

HORSLEY: Guglielmo's glass supplier tells him things might ease up by next spring, something we could all raise a glass to, assuming we can find one. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CANDY SONG, "BEAUTIFUL OBJECT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.