If you are a packager, choosing the right packaging material for your bottled beverages is a complicated process, especially if you need to consider the environmental impacts of your selected packaging. Factors such as manufacturing process, transportation, recyclability, and disposability can affect your decision.
To help you in selecting the best packaging material for your bottled beverages, we will be discussing the mentioned factors above along with the carbon footprint of glass bottles, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans in this article. So if you want to know more, keep on reading!
Let us start with the carbon footprint of each packaging material. Below is a table summarizing the lowest to highest estimates of the carbon footprint of 1.5-liter glass bottles, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans according to TAPP Water.
As you can see, aluminum cans generate the highest carbon footprint while reusable glass bottles have the lowest value. When it comes to carbon footprint, reusable glass bottles are the most ideal packaging choices.
Next, let us proceed to the manufacturing process of glass, plastic, and aluminum packaging materials.
Glass bottles are made from soda ash, liquefied sand, recycled glass, limestone, and other additives. Limestone is a very important raw material in making glass containers because it helps in preventing the glass from the effects of weathering. This rock is usually mined from quarries. You can read more about how glass is made here.
When it comes to environmental impacts, limestone mining has environmental hazards which include noise pollution, water pollution, and the development of sinkholes. It can destroy the landscape permanently as well as animal habitats in limestone caves.
Plastic bottles are manufactured using natural gas and crude oil. They are transformed into smaller particles called monomers which are used to create polymers by chemically bonding them together. These polymers form plastic materials that are used in food packaging, water bottles, and others.
As to the acquisition of the raw materials, plastic is the one that gets eliminated first when it comes to choosing between glass, plastic, and aluminum packaging. This is because the natural gas and oil needed to manufacture plastic are buried deep under the ground which requires drilling.
Aluminum cans are mostly made of bauxite which is another mineral that can only be acquired through mining. As we have mentioned earlier, mining harms the environment which leads to increased erosion, habitat destruction, and water contamination. Raw bauxite is mined using open pits which means that manufacturers need to scrape a pit into the ground which destroys the environment.
Each type of container will have a different way of transportation.
Glass bottles have one big, eco-unfriendly side – they are heavy. When it comes to transportation, glass bottles are the losing packaging materials. Transporting them requires more energy compared to lightweight plastic bottles and aluminum cans. This is because glass containers are breakable so they can’t be packed inside trucks tightly as you would do with plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
A glass bottle with a 500-mL capacity weighs around 400g. Aluminum cans and plastic bottles with the same capacity only weigh around 10g which is far lighter compared to glass bottles. While this is not much of a problem to consumers, the 40:1 weight ratio between glass bottles and aluminum/plastic containers is a big issue for distributors and manufacturers.
Because of the weight of glass containers, you will be needing more maintenance services on packaging machines and spend more on fuel costs which leads to larger emission responsibility. Also, distributing and shipping them will be less efficient. You need to transport glass containers to bottling facilities first before they can reach the consumers. Once the content of the bottles has been consumed, the bottles have to be collected and brought back to bottling facilities.
The energy cost of the long-distance transport of plastic containers is comparable to and even greater than the production of the plastic bottles itself according to research by Gleick and Cooley. Moreover, the energy costs of plastic bottle processing and packaging are far smaller compared to transporting them. However, this will depend on how long the transport distance is.
The carbon footprint of transporting products packaged in plastic bottles in short distances is lower compared to the carbon footprint during the production. Plastic containers can be tightly packed and since they are very lightweight, the shipping process requires less fuel as compared to glass containers.
In fact, beverage manufacturing companies are now considering sustainability when it comes to the design of their plastic bottle shapes to make the transportation process easier and more environmentally-friendly.
Consumers love canned beverages because aluminum cans are airtight, small, and lightweight. Not only do consumers love them but also our planet. With the small size of cans, you can save on transportation costs. You can fit more cans into smaller spaces and since they are lightweight, they require less energy during transportation, just like plastic bottles.
Moreover, aluminum cans are not fragile so they won’t need much cardboard packaging during the transportation process. This means that you will have more space for packing your cans. These reasons make transporting aluminum cans greener compared to transporting glass containers.
The last factor you need to consider is the recyclability of your packaging material. What happens to glass, plastic, and aluminum containers after their content has been consumed? Will they end up in landfills or in the oceans?
Glass bottle manufacturers like Roetell create new bottles using up to 70% cullet. The cullet is mixed with other raw materials to produce specific quality standards and colors. Manufacturers can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of glass bottles by using recycled materials in creating new glass containers. Furnaces can operate using lower temperatures because recycled glass has already been melted to the proper consistency.
In 2017, the recycling rate of plastic bottles in the U.S. was only 8.4% which is very small. The remaining 91.6% were sent to landfills or burned for energy. For those that go to landfills, they can either pollute the environment or sit there for about 450 years before they fully decompose. They can poison the ocean and kill wildlife.
Also, as plastic disintegrates, it releases harmful chemicals that are dangerous not only to the environment but to the health. You can avoid this problem by recycling them instead of throwing them into landfills. But, do take note that you can only recycle most plastics up to 2x. Plastics are used to make fabric once they can no longer be recycled. However, these fabrics will likely end up in landfills in the future too.
Today, it is clear that plastic containers are the biggest polluters even though they produce lower carbon footprint compared to glass. In fact, plastic pollution is more talked about than aluminum or glass pollution.
You can completely recycle aluminum cans just like glass bottles. They can be repeatedly recycled without limits. According to The Aluminum Association, around 63% of aluminum cans are being recycled by the aluminum industry in the U.S. while 50% are being recycled by the consumers compared to 29% of plastic and 26% of glass recycled.
Recycling aluminum is an efficient process because you can melt and reuse aluminum cans repeatedly with minimal quality loss. The Aluminum Association stated that making aluminum cans from recycled materials only requires 5% as much as the energy needed to make new cans from bauxite. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also estimated that recycling 1 ton of aluminum can save about 21 oil barrels consumed in the manufacturing process.
For aluminum cans that go to landfills, it can take up to around 500 years for them to fully decompose. You may think that this is a very long time but it is far shorter compared to the 1 million years for glass bottles to decompose in landfills.
Aluminum cans are the top choices if you can find ones that are made from 100% recycled materials. Their easy recyclability and transportation make them the winner among the three materials. But if recycled aluminum cans are not among your options, then you should opt for glass bottles. Aside from being completely recyclable, glass bottles are manufactured from nontoxic raw materials and can also be reused in other ways domestically.