Consumption Is The Biggest Problem

By Chris Wadsworth

Published in The Source issue 32

I took my heading for this article from a TED Talk by Leyla Acaroglu called Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore. In the talk she questions some common held beliefs about sustainability in an attempt to create a wider understanding of the complex issues around material use and sustainable practices.

When designing packaging we are often asked by our clients to give advice concerning packaging options, particularly around sustainability issues. We’ve found that different factors influence the solutions we recommend and it’s not always as black and white as people think.

Glass versus plastic

Most people would instinctively say that glass is a more eco-friendly packaging option than plastic and research by the University of Oklahoma has shown this to be particularly true for consumers of organic products. However, when you take a closer look, it isn’t always clear which packaging material is the most eco-friendly.

How glass packaging is more eco-friendly than plastic:

Raw materials - Silica sand (the raw material for making glass) is abundant and easy to access. Whereas crude oil (the raw material for making plastic) is a fossil fuel and is difficult to extract. Extracting the raw materials for plastic takes more energy and produces more pollutants than extracting the raw materials for glass.

Recycling - Every time plastic is recycled it degrades and reduces in quality. So, it is more accurate to say that plastic is downcycled rather than recycled. On the other hand glass doesn’t degrade as it is recycled. As a result, more glass packaging is recycled back into packaging whereas most recycled plastic packaging becomes something else.

How plastic packaging is more eco-friendly than glass:

Production - It takes less energy to produce a plastic container from its raw materials than it does to produce a similar glass container from its raw materials. The production of glass also creates more pollutants than the production of plastic.

Recycling - Recycling plastic is more energy efficient than recycling glass.

Transportation - Plastic weighs less than glass and therefore requires less energy to transport.

Breakage - Glass is more prone to breakage during shipping than plastic. This is a waste of the packaging and the product along with all the energy and materials required to produce both.

To make the right decision about which packaging material is the best eco choice, you need to look at other factors. Local products packaged in locally produced glass containers could be more eco-friendly than plastic packaging. But, if glass packaged products have travelled some distance to get to your local store (or even if just the glass packaging has travelled a distance to the producer), plastic could be the more eco-friendly option.

Glass versus aluminium

The great thing about glass and aluminium is they are both 100% recyclable. That means they do not degrade during the recycling process and can be recycled over and over again.

How glass packaging is more eco-friendly than aluminium: 

Raw materials – Bauxite ore (the raw material for aluminium) requires more energy to extract than silica sand and scars the land to access it. As a result it takes twice the energy to produce an aluminium can from its raw material compared to a similar sized glass bottle or jar.

How aluminium packaging is more eco-friendly than glass:

Recycling - Recycling aluminium is very efficient. To make a can from recycled aluminium it only takes 5% of the energy used to make a new can from bauxite ore. Making an aluminium can from recycled content can have a 95% energy saving, but you only save about 25% of the energy when making a glass bottle from recycled glass.

Weight - Aluminium weighs about six times less than glass for a similar sized container. It therefore requires a lot less energy to transport both empty and filled containers, saving a significant amount of emissions.

There are pros and cons to using different materials and all this needs to be considered when choosing how to package the products we consume. Minimising packaging and reducing waste are important factors too.

Don’t forget to recycle

An important factor for sustainability is recycling. It is interesting to note that aluminium cans are placed for recycling by consumers more often than glass or plastic containers.

If all packaging was recycled the burden on our environment and resources would be significantly reduced. The damage done to our environment by litter and the emissions of methane produced by landfill would also be reduced. The simple task of disposing of waste materials appropriately could make a world of difference.

Consumption is the biggest problem

We need to look at ways to reduce waste by creating products that last longer or can be repurposed easier. As the human population increases and individuals consume more than ever before, we need to work harder and harder to find sustainable solutions just to keep up with the environmental burden caused by increasing consumption.

Posted 10 May 2017

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