Is Glass, Aluminium or Plastic Better for The Environment?

Nowadays customers are far more eco-conscient than couple of years ago. One of their main concerns is product packaging, especially products packaged in bottles.

3 types of material are used: Aluminium, glass and plastic.

The general consensus is that glass packaging is more environmentally friendly than plastic because glass is a more natural substance and is supposed to require less energy to manufacture and/or recycle. Plastic bottles are an environmental problem  – especially when they are discarded in oceans,  littering tourist trails, and are supposed to leach toxins into the contents of their container. However, they are not a problem if they are recycled or reused, even though some voices are pointing the finger at the fact that the quality of the plastic can diminish a great deal after each recycling. Aluminium, although seen as the best container has a very strong carbon footprint because countries manufacturing it must import the raw material from afar.

A lot of factors are playing into the environmental impact of these different materials. Every material used affects the environment through habitat disruption or destruction when raw materials are mined, dug, or harvested. Each material requires energy to be processed and transported to manufacturing centres — and once recycled must travel again across varied distances to be re-processed. Not to mention that during processing different amounts of each material can ultimately be recovered through the process.

Each material has a different economic incentive whether it’s from scratch or specific to recycling and generates different total greenhouse gas emissions. All these factors intertwine to create the products’ total environmental impact, which makes them difficult to compare. So, there may be no single “right” answer. Meaning that glass is not necessary the holy grail.

Glass cons are:

• It breaks
• It pollutes and costs more to manufacture, to ship and to recycle.
• It takes twice as much energy to produce
• It creates more than 6 times the global warming gases than plastic
• Recycling of glass has peaked since the mid-nineties, and the percentage of glass being recycled each year has declined.

Glass pros are:

• Inert in landfills, it won’t leach harmful chemicals
• The weight of glass bottles has decreased by 40% in the past 30 years.

Plastic cons are:

• Litter is dangerous especially for marine wildlife
• Some plastics can leach chemicals.
• Some plastics contain PVCs

Plastic pros are:

• Easy and cheap to recycle
• Very light so containers are easy and cheap to ship.
• Plastic containers allow to buy food in bulk, which saves money and grants access to discounts and other price reductions that come along with buying in bulk.
• It can be recycled into several products from carpet filling to plastic lumber and or clothes.
• Plastic used to store perishable items can absorb the smells and tastes of them, which means that foods with strong flavours, such as curry or tomato soup can be stored without its smell spreading throughout the whole fridge.
• Over forty percent of the plastic made is recycled, as compared to only twenty percent of glass containers.
• Recycling of plastic is growing.

Aluminium cons are:

• In order to produce aluminium, manufacturers need bauxite, which is a mineral that must be mined from the earth. Mining for bauxite is harmful to the environment and can lead to water contamination, erosion, and habitat destruction.
• While the shipping of bauxite to the UK is expensive, the energy consumed during the refinement of alumina to aluminium is the real drawback.
• The global production of aluminium consumes more than 3% of the world’s electrical supply.

For Aluminium the pros are:

• Very light so containers are easy and cheap to ship.
• aluminium is 100% recyclable and can be recycled over and over again.
• 55% of aluminium cans are currently being recycled compared to only 34% of glass containers
• Even when aluminium is tossed in the trash instead of recycled, it is often picked up and turned into recycling centres by those who want to redeem the 5-cent per can reward.
• 70% of aluminium cans were made from recycled aluminium, the cost of which is substantially cheaper to produce than its virgin counterpart. In comparison, making a can out of recycled aluminium requires only 8% of the energy consumed by producing new aluminium.
• Aluminium takes “only” 500 years before full decomposition compared to the millions years for glass or plastic to decompose.

 

A lot of factors play into the environmental impact of these different materials. Every material used affects the environment through habitat disruption or destruction when raw materials are mined, dug, or harvested. Each material requires energy to be processed and transported to manufacturing centres — and once recycled, travel varied distances (again) to be re-processed, and different amounts of each material can ultimately be recovered through the process. Each material has a different economic incentive (from scratch, and specific to recycling), and generates different total greenhouse gas emissions. All these factors intertwine to create the products’ total environmental impact, which makes them difficult to compare. So, there may be no single “right” answer as a lot of people who have concerns for the environment would think.

Recycled plastic seems to be the most effective and efficient packaging solution in term of sustainability at the moment, and this is why we use it.

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