Glass v Plastic: The “Back To The Future” Discussion We Can’t Afford

Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says there isn’t one single answer to the plastic v glass debate, and it’s certainly not as simple as banning plastics or re-introducing glass bottles.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, every Saturday I used to ‘bottle up’ the drinks at our local pub.

Back then, pubs served six or seven different types of drinks, the fanciest one was something with pineapple, but mostly spirits went with soda, tonic or ginger beer.

The empty bottles would be transferred into crates and when the man from Britvic arrived, I would help put the empty bottles back on the lorry and bring the full ones back to restock the shelves.

Those were different times; women were not allowed in the saloon bar, salt and shake crisps and peanuts were the only food on offer, and children had to sit in the beer garden. Thankfully, much has changed.

Before recycling became commonplace and Materials Recycling Facilities as we know them hadn’t been invented, the only competition was between glass, steel and paper producers to promote what they perceived to be the best packaging.

The argument sold to us was that it took far more of our earth’s precious resources to collect, wash and sterilise glass bottles, than it did to bottle our drinks in plastic and then bury them in the ground – nobody seemed to give much thought to the long-term consequences of such a plan.

And then along came plastic. I’m not sure when the environmental movement caught on to the idea of ‘light weighting’ – effectively telling us that anything in plastic was lighter and cheaper to transport – or whether it was actually just a massive ruse to persuade us anything in plastic was better.

In no less than a decade, glass was beginning to disappear from our shelves and plastic bottles were appearing in our hedgerows and beyond.

The argument sold to us was that it took far more of our earth’s precious resources to collect, wash and sterilise glass bottles, than it did to bottle our drinks in plastic and then bury them in the ground – nobody seemed to give much thought to the long-term consequences of such a plan.

In common with most environmental moves nothing is that binary, and once the genie was released it was impossible to put it back in the (plastic or glass) bottle…which is why it frustrates me to still see these old arguments played out in the present day.

BP’s chief economist, Spencer Dale, was recently interviewed on the BBC talking about the company’s latest annual report.

The oil giant argued that swapping plastic for other materials will have a bigger cost in terms of energy and carbon emissions, with Dale using the example that replacing a plastic bottle with a glass bottle will take about 80% more energy, because glass is heavier and takes ‘an awful lot more energy’ to transport around.

Hmmm…that sounds familiar.

Interestingly though, in its report, BP didn’t chose to reference how the widespread deployment of efficient collection and reuse systems could, if properly designed and managed, reduce those extra emissions quite substantially.

Today’s ongoing pressure to dump plastic and choose more sustainable alternatives is pretty relentless. It feels to me much like the argument that butter is apparently now good for you, after years of telling us to opt for low-fat spreads.

Another environmental bandwagon which invoked the law of unintended consequences was when we were all encouraged to switch to diesel cars to cut COemissions.

In the 1990s, diesels accounted for just 10% of the car fleet, but by 2012 it was around 50% – except that while carbon was reduced, diesel cars produce four times more nitrogen dioxide and 22 times more particulates, leading to a rapid rise in air pollution.

Today’s ongoing pressure to dump plastic and choose more sustainable alternatives is pretty relentless. It feels to me much like the argument that butter is apparently now good for you, after years of telling us to opt for low-fat spreads.

You never know who or what to believe and it seems half the problem is that all these arguments are designed to confuse us into submission – so we effectively don’t make any decisions because we’re afraid it will be the wrong one.

Certainly, there is some solid evidence that simply swapping plastics for other materials would have negative knock-on impacts. For example, when plastic bags are measured against paper or cotton substitutes, a BBC analysis found there wasn’t a great deal of difference in their overall environmental impact.

Yes, paper bags require marginally fewer reuses than ‘bags for life’ to make them more environmentally-friendly than single-use plastic bags, but because paper bags are less durable, they have to be replaced more frequently.

A study by researchers at Heriot-Watt University found that an outright ban on plastics could cause significant damage to the environment because the increased manufacturing and resource costs for alternatives would be more expensive – plus they once again cited the old chestnut of light weighting.

Sound familiar again?

Looking to the future, the Government’s waste strategy, which includes introducing a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled material is a step in the right direction.

What we need is an approach which harnesses the best of both worlds, working together to make sure we avoid the scenario whereby a ban on plastics leaves us with alternatives that could potentially make the climate situation worse.

Plenty of work is also going on to develop alternative materials, including wood-based bioplastic cartons for milk that can be recycled like cardboard, and there’s also the promise of carbon taxes to help reduce emissions.

Making plastics more expensive through the use of taxes may well help but personally, I don’t believe there is one single answer and it’s certainly not as simple as banning plastics or re-introducing glass bottles.

Instead, what we need is an approach which harnesses the best of both worlds, working together to make sure we avoid the scenario whereby a ban on plastics leaves us with alternatives that could potentially make the climate situation worse.

The waste industry has a great deal to contribute in terms of new ideas and new solutions for recycling, reuse and reprocessing – our voice of the future must be heard as our skills and expertise can help to deliver real change instead of revisiting the same old arguments from 20 years ago.

And we also have to recognise that if we want to keep our fancy packaging, our myriad flavours of crisps and our never-ending thirst for the latest brightest and flashiest consumer goodies, then these things will always come at a price.

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  1. Most of the people who advocate these ‘new approaches’ have little clue about the scope of the problems involved.

  2. So here is my simplistic comment – in a non-contaminated form (almost never happens), both glass and plastics can be recycled quite easily.
    In the contaminated form (almost always) only plastics can be converted into CHP or hydrogen.

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