Lifestyle revolutionZero waste

Sustainability check. What is more eco: aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic?

Comparing the best alternative packaging solutions for your zero-waste lifestyle 

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We started this content piece with the goal to come up with a clear bold statement of using a particular packaging instead of (let’s be honest) plastic! But the reality is that there is no black and white when it comes to packaging because NO PACKAGING IS SUSTAINABLE. But life isn’t so easy and going completely zero waste can be challenging. To make things a little bit easier we have done the sustainability check trying to answer the question of what is more eco: aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic?

If something we’d like you to encourage you to do when starting in the Zero-Waste journey is that it’s worth researching. And because we understand you are busy with your daily life challenges but still want to try your best, we have prepared this sustainability check and try to figure out what is more eco: aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic?

When it comes to packaging and making more eco-conscious choices, the alternatives of aluminium, glass, paper surely depends on the end- purpose, but most importantly it is also important to take into account other variables such as: what is the raw material used, manufacturing costs, transportation footprint and the recyclability rate. Now you will be like, do we have to combine all these factors too for every single product we buy? The answer is “NO” because after long hours of research we have put the information together, so that, if you understand the basics you truly will be able to quickly evaluate the best fit in your new zero waste life and make smart decisions to evaluate what is more eco: aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic!

What is the packaging consumption by the industrial sector?

If you were to compare the different industries, we can see that packaging wins to all others, including agriculture, automotive, or even construction. So at the end packaging does matter, because we all together consume almost a 40% of our products packaged – so any efforts in reducing this number translates in an important contribution to lowering our carbon footprint.

plastic packaging comparative consumption industrial sectors
Source: The Environmental Impacts of Packaging

 

The packaging also plays a huge role in branding for businesses, since they know packaging is the first thing that you as a consumer will see, which can heavily influence your buying decisions.

How can we choose a more eco-friendly packaging if we compare aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic?

Knowing that no packaging is sustainable and that the goal is to move towards a zero waste lifestyle smoothly but surely, being informed today is the starting point. 

These are the basic variables we have taken into account for paper, aluminium, glass and plastic:

  • What raw materials does it use, what is the impact on our planet when sourcing them.
  • The manufacturing process and the carbon footprint it involves
  • Considering the properties and features of each material (very important is the weight), as this will have a huge impact on transportation carbon footprint. Be aware that after manufacturing packaging, the greatest environmental impact comes from transportation – impacting on truckload size and therefore the fuel used.
  • The recyclability rate for each material as well as being aware of the chances the packaging is going to be incorporated back in the circular economy. 

All these factors above and how these are interweaved makes comparing packaging options truly difficult to compare. So, there may be no single “right” answer, but here is all the information we have gathered to understand more in-depth the pros and cons of each material used for the packaging purpose, facts that can help you navigate the endless shelves in the supermarkets.

sustainability comparative Comparing what packaging is more sustainable and eco-friendly: aluminium vs glass vs paper vs plastic plastic free july ourgoodbrands

FACTS: positive & negatives of aluminium vs glass vs paper or plastic

POSITIVE NEGATIVE
CARTON / PAPER
  • Light, pretty much as plastic.
  • Paper bags have 1 month of landfill lifespan; coated and laminated paper (this is gift wrap, tissue…) is between 2-5 months; cardboard is 1-2 months.
  • Carton is 100% recyclable
  • Proper management of forests can guarantee a continued supply of wood for paper and other purposes.
  • Paper is a renewable resource, does not use fossil fuels.
  • Easy to print branding.
  • If it’s not sustainably sourced or recycled, it means the brand is cutting fresh trees to package the product. Check for the FSC Certification. FSC’ stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that works to promote the practice of sustainable forestry worldwide. The Forest Stewardship Council ensures customers have the option to choose forest products like paper and wood that have been sourced in an environmentally-friendly, socially responsible and economically viable manner.
  • The inks used are likely to be petroleum based and have acids. Look for soy ink (made from soybeans), digital printing as it makes the recycling of the paper easier.
ALUMINIUM
  • Lightweight
  • Small sized
  • Not fragile
  • Lowest transportation footprint
  • It can be recycled endless times, and it’s proven to be the most recycled material in the world.
  • Aluminium packaging helps the containing product (drink or food) to cool faster.
  • Cans that end up in landfill take up to 500 years to decompose.
  • Human health issues: various diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s have been linked to the aluminium can through seepage of harmful chemicals.
  • Approximately only one-fifth of the raw material ends up in the final product, therefore the production results in major amounts of solid waste and sludge to be disposed of.
GLASS
  • It’s 100% recyclable, endlessly. It can be made into new packaging again and again without losing any quality.
  • Estimated 80% of recovered glass containers are used for new glass bottles.
  • Using recycled glass when making new glass bottles reduces massively the carbon footprint (requires less energy than producing new ones).
  • If the glass is not recycled or end up in landfills, they won’t leach harmful chemicals.
  • Heavy material, thereby has a high transportation footprint.
  • Fragile material must be protected for transportation (use a lot of cardboard and extra space).
  • Glass bottles take over a 1,000,000 years to decompose.
  • Glass recycling is often shipped long distances. And unfortunately, recycling glass is also economically unfeasible in some areas as it requires special equipment.
  • Risk of breakage, becoming unsafe for humans.
PLASTIC
  • Lightweight, so shipping them consumes less fuel.
  • Short distances, plastic has a low transportation footprint.
  • It can be packed tightly, safely.
  • Long shelf life.
  • Only up to 30% recyclability rate, not to mention that many soft plastics cannot be recycled at all.
  • Recyclability of plastic is dependent on its composition and the complexity of polymers involved.
  • Plastic containers take +450 years to go away (and it never really does, photodegradation releases toxic chemicals into the environment – also known as microplastics also a proved impact on humans health).
  • Plastic bags and film have a landfill lifespan of 500 to 1,000 years.
  • Huge carbon footprint in manufacturing. Recycled plastic is more expensive than creating new.
  • The large use of non-renewable resources.
  • China (+Asia) plastic ban, is bringing incineration of plastics as an alternative. Incineration of PVC-containing waste generates hydrogen chloride, dioxins and heavy metals that are emitted to the atmosphere, or contaminate incinerator ashes or filter residuals.

 

Sourcing and manufacturing of Aluminium vs Glass vs Paper vs Plastic: How are they made?

Sustainability check on Paper 

Most of the trees used to make paper are trees planted explicitly for manufacturing paper. Therefore, less paper usage means fewer trees planted by commercial harvesters. Moreover, harvesting and planting trees may have other environmental benefits. Trees consume large amounts of carbon dioxide. For example, U.S. forests could be consuming as much carbon dioxide as the United States emits if they were growing forests. Mature forest ecosystems made up of a combination of growing trees and dead material, give off as much carbon dioxide as they consume

Sustainability check on Aluminium

New aluminium cans are almost always made from bauxite, a mineral that is sourced from open-pit (essentially, scraping a pit into the landscape and leaving environmental destruction behind). Bauxite mining contributes to habitat loss and water contamination, as well as a slew of other negative environmental impacts, like increased erosion. The eco-cost from the destructive mining process cannot be fixed with recycling.

Aluminium processing is water and energy-hungry and produces a variety of pollutants. 

Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of bauxite.

Sustainability check on Glass

The glass is also made from non-renewable resources: liquefied sand, soda ash (naturally occurring sodium carbonate), limestone and silica, as well as recycled glass.

Limestone helps prevent glass from weathering and it’s a valuable raw material for glass containers. The sedimentary rock is typically mined from a quarry — either above or below ground. In terms of the environment, limestone mining may contaminate water and contribute to noise pollution. 

Limestone mining can also destroy habitat for animals who live in limestone caves and can form a permanent scar on the landscape.

Although these are more plentiful and less environmentally damaging to extract than petroleum and bauxite, glass bottles still have high manufacturing costs, as all these components require energy to heat them to 1200 ºC

Sustainability check on Plastic

Plastic manufacturing starts off with oil and natural gas. These raw materials are converted into smaller pieces called monomers and are then chemically bonded together to create long chains, known as polymers. These polymers are the plastic you see in the form of water bottles, food packaging, and much more.

Most plastic drink bottles are made from polyethene terephthalate (PET). Like all plastics, PET is sourced from non-renewable petroleum and its extraction and manufacture leave a massive carbon footprint. 

The reason why plastic has been massively used is that when we take into consideration the amount of energy used in the mining, transportation and manufacturing, it turns out that is has a lower impact than glass or aluminium

Another interesting overview of the very specific data for each packaging:

sustainability comparative Comparing what packaging is more sustainable and eco-friendly: aluminium vs glass vs paper vs plastic
Source: The Environmental Impacts of Packaging

Conclusions aluminium vs glass vs paper vs plastic comparative:

At the ZeroWaste101 team we wish we had come up with very clear conclusions on what is the better packaging option, and to our surprise, this did not happen. But still, there are other alternatives to packaging, and this is why the Zero Waste lifestyle movement makes so much sense! Here are our ideas, and we would love to hear yours too – comment below and we will exchange our options!

  • The best way to go is naked and DIY. Zero waste is a way of living that hasn’t born with no reason, and the reality is that any form of packaging is not sustainable. 
  • When we face reality, is that choosing not to use plastic is already a tough decision, so when it comes to alternative material packaging choices we must take into consideration at least the recyclability rate and that starts with us – can the packaging be upcycled? For example, in the Zero Waste movement, we see a lot of glass containers which can be upcycled for many different purposes, including bulk shopping! Assess the life-cycle of all packaging options, and you will find that glass is today the best choice if you plant to repurpose it.
  • Avoid the single-use packaging whenever you can, which most often it will mean that you are saying “no to plastic”. 
  • Not all waste happens on the shelves of supermarkets. Other interesting ways to start your zero waste journey is by making others instead of” choices:
    • Cloth napkins instead of paper towels.
    • Use old towels or rags to clean instead of paper towels (as above these usually come in plastic wrap) and you can simultaneously extend the lifecycle of other items that were no longer functional.
    • Digitalise your bills and bank statements instead of receiving them in the mailbox
    • Use tins for your beauty products #insteadof plastic.
    • Choose soap bars instead of plastic bottle soaps
    • Wrap gifts in newspapers instead of traditional paper wrap (which tends to come packaged in a plastic film – a non-recyclable!)
    • Use Tupperware instead of Ziploc bags
    • Use Bees wrap instead of aluminium foil or plastic wrap – as you cannot recycle these at all!
    • Drink tap water and carry your reusable water bottle instead of single-use plastic water bottles. 
    • Drink water or prepare fresh juices instead of any bottled drinks of any kind.
    • Make your own base for cooking, for example, tomato sauce instead of purchasing packaged or conserved food. You can cook more quantity and freeze it on upcycled glass jars for future occasions (money and time saver!)
    • Buy leave tea in bulk instead of single-use tea bags.
    • Buy your coffee in bulk instead of using coffee pots (which are not recyclable and take +400 years to decompose)
    • Prepare your own takeaway food instead of purchasing at a cafe.
    • If you plan to have food at the cafe or restaurant today, choose to stay there instead of taking it away.
    • Ask for no straw or carry your own bamboo or stainless steel straw instead of single-use plastic straws
    • Make your own toothpaste instead of purchasing on a tube
    • Make your own natural cleaning essentials instead of using chemical plastic packaged cleaning products

Did we miss any recommendations that you’d like to share with us? Comment below as we are constantly learning too!

Do you want more like this? Here is the FREE ebook with 80 tips on how to go Plastic Free July 2019 and all the year round. The go-to guide for anyone who is willing to make a difference taking one step at a time.

guide plastic free july 2019 zero waste tips

If you want a smaller guide with just the basics. here are our Top 10 tips to go Zero Waste for beginners.

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We write positive contents for good to raise awareness on more sustainable living options, taking the form of brands and products. If you are a brand needing a platform like this to get exposure, email us at hello@ourgoodbrands.com. We do writing, design, video production and more. The better you are the best you will become.

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