As the conveniences of modern life multiply, so does the amount of trash produced in each person’s household. For this reason, eco-conscious people are always looking for new, better ways to package their food and other products.
Which of these three everyday materials used for packaging—glass, plastic, or aluminum—would emerge victorious in a sustainability battle? In this article, we’ll compare the materials, highlighting their respective benefits and drawbacks so that you can choose the one that is best for the planet.
Table of Contents
- The Bottom Line
Glass is made from all-natural raw materials—sand, soda ash, and limestone—that can be melted down and reused endlessly without losing quality. While most items require some form of packaging to maintain their stability and safety, much of it is non-recyclable and intended to be thrown away.
Glass is a permanent material, which means it can be recycled over and over without losing any of its properties. Additionally, glass is always suitable and safe for food-grade packaging, regardless of how often it’s recycled.
For creative individuals, recycled glass can be turned into various products, such as jewelry, vases, and ornaments.
Besides its versatility, glass is also one of the most stable materials known to man. It doesn’t interact with other substances, so the flavor and freshness of food and drink items are preserved.
The main disadvantage of glass is that it’s heavy, making transportation difficult and costly. Also, glass is not flexible, unlike plastic and aluminum, so it’s more likely to break during the shipping process.
Producing glass bottles and jars is quite energy-intensive since it demands high temperatures throughout the manufacturing process. This means that even though glass is fully recyclable, the carbon footprint associated with its production is typically higher than that of plastic.
To add insult to injury, approximately 31.3% of all glass containers are recycled in the United States. On top of that, it may take several thousands of years for glass items to degrade completely once they are dumped in a landfill.
Glass Bottle Recycling
Once a glass bottle is made, it becomes the main material needed to make more bottles. This saves resources, energy, and carbon emissions. Due to its versatility as a recyclable, returnable, and refillable material, glass has high demand in recycling centers.
Plastics are synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that mostly consist of polymers. They are made from petroleum and natural gas, two non-renewable fossil fuels. The most common type of plastic packaging, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is used to make water bottles, soft drink bottles, and containers for peanut butter, salad dressing, and cooking oil.
Due to its usefulness, plastic has become increasingly indispensable in modern life, making the complete eradication of plastics practically impossible.
Plastics are very lightweight, which makes them ideal for packaging materials as they use less energy and resources to transport. They are also very versatile, as they can be molded into almost any shape and size.
The biggest benefit—and the biggest reason for its pervasiveness—is the cost. Plastic is cheaper to produce than glass and aluminum, making it the most popular packaging material on the market.
The biggest drawback to plastic is that it is not biodegradable, meaning that it can take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. Worse, when plastics are incinerated, they release harmful chemicals and toxins into the air.
It’s estimated that only 5 to 6% of all plastics are recycled in the United States, so most plastics end up in landfills where they will sit for centuries.
Theoretically, all plastics can be recycled, but many barriers could prevent this process in practice. For starters, some products have many layers and plastic types that are difficult to separate, making recycling labor-intensive and expensive. Furthermore, plastic resins are often unfit for recycling due to contamination from food and other sources.
Aluminum is a lightweight metal that is used to make beverage cans, foil, and food containers. It is also used in construction, electrical wiring, and automotive parts. In this context, however, we’ll be talking about aluminum packaging.
Aluminum is 100% recyclable and, like glass, can be recycled indefinitely without losing any of its qualities. Because of their low weight and stackability, aluminum cans are more environmentally friendly to transport than glass bottles.
Although recycling aluminum cans is very energy-efficient, mining bauxite—the primary ore of aluminum—is a very energy-intensive process. Bauxite mining is detrimental to the environment and can potentially cause water contamination, soil erosion, and loss of habitat.
In the US, approximately 34.9% of aluminum containers and packaging are recycled, including food and drink containers, aluminum foil, and other packaging. With a recycling rate of 50.4%, aluminum beer and soft drink cans have the highest percentage of any category.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, all three materials—glass, plastic, and aluminum—have pros and cons regarding environmental friendliness. The best way to reduce your impact is to recycle whatever you can and avoid using disposable packaging whenever possible.
But if you have to choose one material, aluminum is the clear winner. It’s recyclable, lightweight, and doesn’t require massive amounts of energy to produce. Plus, it’s already the most recycled material, so there’s infrastructure in place to make recycling easy.
Finding a recycling facility near you is easy with OC Recycling. We’re a full-service recycling center in Santa Ana, CA, and we accept all types of materials, including glass, plastic, and aluminum. Receive cash for your recyclables and help reduce your environmental impact today!