Plastic, glass or aluminium. What’s the best for the environment?
When you need a beverage on the run, should you be choosing a plastic, aluminium or glass bottle? There’s so much information out there about packaging, so here’s a rundown on some of the pros and cons of each option.
Often glass is held up as the gold standard of sustainability. It’s styled up on Insta feeds, while the plastic bottle barely gets a look in. However, this is a really misguided belief. If you want to store flour or pasta or beans – sure thing. A glass container is a great option and won’t spoil the flavour of your food or drink. But if you’re looking to get a beverage on the go, it’s not necessarily the best choice for the environment.
Over their life cycles, glass containers or jars can create up to 33% more greenhouse gases than plastic containers. One of the main issues with glass is simply that it’s so heavy, especially when compared to lightweight plastic and aluminium. This means it’s not particularly sustainable to transport – more fuel is consumed and more trips need to be made to deliver it.
Glass also requires a lot of energy to produce. It’s made by heating sand, limestone, sodium carbonate and often recycled glass in a furnace at temperatures of around 1200oC.
On the plus side, glass is more or less infinitely recyclable, which is always a good thing. It doesn’t lose quality as it recycles, either. However, broken glass can be problematic as it contaminates other recyclables, such as paper and cardboard.
The other issue with recycling glass in Australia is that many manufacturers won’t actually use recycled glass to make new glass containers because contamination can cause colour variation and faults in the finished product. In parts of Europe and South East Asia, this issue is addressed by setting up a collection scheme whereby bottles are collected, sterilised and simply reused again. That way, they don’t have to be broken down and go through the recycling process. However, in Australia and New Zealand, this scheme isn’t established, so there are stockpiles of glass bottles that simply can’t be used.
As a result, glass is a great option for longer term storage, but not necessarily for an on-the-go beverage.
Aluminium cans are also a popular choice. The issue with cans is mainly due to how the aluminium is sourced. Aluminium starts as bauxite ore. Mining bauxite is not environmentally friendly. It requires large amounts of land to be cleared, which threatens ecosystems and can cause erosion. We experience the impact of this first hand in Australia, as one of the world’s largest bauxite producers.
The refining process is also damaging to the environment. The caustic soda and chemicals used in the process generate waste and can leave residual products in the soil.
Like glass, there is a lot of energy required to produce aluminium cans. To make them, aluminium must be melted at temperatures over 1000oC. By contrast, PET plastic can be produced at around 250-300oC.
One of the benefits of aluminium is that it’s extremely lightweight and can be packed tightly for transportation. It’s also very easy to recycle and can be done so repeatedly. However, even when made with recycled content, an EPA study found that manufacturing aluminium cans generates more tons of CO2 per ton of metal than PET bottles made with recycled PET.
When it comes to plastic, your first question should always be: what kind of plastic is it? All plastics are not equal. For the environment, polyethylene terephthalate (AKA, PET) is a better choice. That is because PET is 100% recyclable after use and can be recycled over and over again. Bottles can also be made from 100% recycled PET resin, which further reduces the carbon footprint.
Just like glass and aluminium, one of the main issues with PET is sourcing and producing it in the first place. One of the main materials used to create PET is oil and gas, which we know are non-renewable resources. That is why it’s preferable to choose bottles made from 100% recycled plastic resin.
That’s what we’ve done at Nu-Pure – our bottles are made with 100% recycled plastic. No virgin plastic needs to be produced to create our spring water bottles. The lid and label can also be recycled if you put it in the kerbside recycling bin. Ultimately, PET plastic is lightweight, fully recyclable and can be made of recycled plastic, which makes it one of the better options for beverages.
Aluminium, glass and plastic all have their pros and cons. However, it may be worth reconsidering some of the preconceptions you have about packaging. Most importantly, we all need to work together to ensure any kind of packaging is disposed of responsibly. A bottle is only recyclable if it’s actually recycled!