The Can Or Bottle – A Green Conundrum


Capitalism has lead us on a journey for the disposable. For the sake of convenience an on-the-go market has developed considerably. We buy, consume and throw away many household and on-the-go products. Packaging is considerable and its safe to assume that the invention of waterproof cardboard and plastic has meant for easier access to products. The considerable growth in the plastic market, now providing around 288 million tons, has led to easy to transport products where weight and breakability is no longer a factor. It is an easy product to use and dispose of.

The glass bottle market has seen a considerable down swing with PET plastic the most considerable material replacing it. It is important to note, that with the increase in plastic consumption more is being done to generate ‘greener’ plastic; that is plastic that has been produced from plant based materials. In the case of Coca-cola, their introduction of the green bottle in the USA has seen a reduction of oil consumption that is equivalent to 60 000 barrels of oil.

Glass has always been a heavily used container for the consumption of food, beverages and other products. It is primarily made out of sand, limestone, cullet and soda ash. It is true that glass requires considerable heat and therefore considerable energy in its production but luckily, much of the raw materials involved in the process can be obtained locally. In fact the European glass market, much like its paper market, has been supplied most heavily by its European counterparts. And glass is not just for the benefit of packaging and containers.

It is a far-reaching industry, with far reaching scope. For instance, glass is an important aspect of heat retention in the home. This is important to improve energy efficiency and can provide the much-needed reduction in the amount of energy used to heat the home. It is also a huge provider to the solar photovoltaic industry (solar panels), with glass design being important to both the integrity and performance of the panels. These are all really important factors to reaching climate change targets in gas emissions.

Glass as already mentioned is energy intensive process with the potential for around 2 tons of CO2 emissions per 1 ton glass created. This is an estimation that takes in the heavy nature of glass and hence its impact on transport. This is really glasses biggest issue. As long as there is the economy and materials all glass products can come from local sources and the mining issues seems few and far between.

Metal has always been an alternative way to create a food container or wrapping foil popular in most restaurants and kitchens. We see it in our daily food supplies. Kitchens are stocked with tin foil, take away is delivered in foil trays and food in the cupboard in stored in cans. This is not to mention that aluminum and tinplate are big business in the drinks market, providing cans for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. An estimated 52 billion cans were produced for the European canned drinks market annually.

Both metal and glass contain raw materials that are frequently mined in various environmental locales however mining of raw materials for the process of metal extraction has many well documented negative side affects. A popularized term Acid Mine Drainage has gained traction with the collapse of the mining industry in certain first world countries. This has its root cause in the flooding and drainage of newly exposed rock faces in old abandoned mine shafts and this water has been found to contaminate ground and surface water supplies. It is a widespread problem and maybe less impacting then mine tailing contamination but is a concern for its broader impacts on wider catchment areas. Whilst most mining for cans is done through open cast measures, mine tailing pollution is to be a huge cause for concern. Some estimates suggest that more then 19300km of streams have been severely damaged due to mine water effluent globally.

The common tinplate and aluminum can is a heavily used commodity with 475 billion cans being made globally. There is suggestion that if these are recycled, and they can be 100% recycled without impacting on quality, there is a potential for a saving equivalent to 32 barrels of oil for every 1 ton of cans recycled. Cans are generally considered to be light in weight and this applies to both sides of the cradle to grave scenario. Research conducted on 355ml or similar aluminum and glass containers based on continent showed that most often, based on a full cradle to grave situation, aluminum was either higher or on par with glass for kgCO2 produced per container generated. A prime example is Western Europe, which had a comparison of 0.110 and 0.112 kgCO2 for glass and cans respectively. However, it also showed how widely variable it could be and highlighted North America’s huge disparity at 0.401 and 0.170 kgCO2 for cans and glass respectively.

This information is key and given glass material is easy to extract and locally available, despite its weight, it also utilizes half of the energy required to produce a similar sized 12-ounce can. This does seem to support a consensus on glass being a ‘greener’ component then its aluminum and steel counterparts.

For me, this means glass all the way and always try to reduce and reuse before recycling.

About the Author Kelly Millward

Leave a Comment: