Plastic or Glass Bottles: Which is Better for the Environment?

March 27, 2018

With pollution, climate change, and the environment increasingly moving to the forefront of political and economic discussions, more and more studies are being performed to research the effects of glass versus plastic bottles and the impacts of each to the environment. Typically, three factors are considered in the discussion of plastic versus glass: cost, method of production, and sustainability (reuse).

Plastic production has increased exponentially in the last three decades, primarily due to its lower cost required to produce. Plastic is cheaper to produce and is more lightweight, making the cost to transport it from the source to the consumer less than glass containers, a cost plastic producers boast is passed on to the consumer. Because of the cost factor, plastic production across the planet has exploded and is now used in everything from food and beverage containers to medical supplies and building materials.

Plastic is produced with petroleum and oil; glass is produced with the natural, readily-available materials silica and soda ash, a fact glass producers tout as being safer to the air we breathe. However, proponents of plastic cite that glass production uses more energy, and glass producers counter that since more glass actually gets recycled than does plastic, the use of recycled glass in production translates to a 20 percent drop in the amount of energy used to produce it and a 50 percent reduction in marine waste.

In terms of sustainability, however, glass is the clear winner. An increasing number of studies by marine environmental groups show that our addiction to plastic has drastically affected the planet’s oceans. The Ocean Conservancy recently stated that¬†there are roughly 19 billion pounds of plastic in our oceans and that plastic comprises 85 percent of the total waste in the ocean. They expect that the total tonnage of plastic in our oceans will double by 2025. The debris from plastic is not just the unsightly, visible debris one thinks of when imagining the giant floating gyres of plastic floating in the ocean (of which there are now five). It also includes degraded, microscopic plastics that enter the marine and avian food chains so that humans are ingesting plastics in the seafood and birds we eat.

Additionally, proponents of glass containers cite the methods of production and ability for reuse as the two strongest points in glass’s favor. Glass bottles, when recycled, can be reused over and over without sacrificing the integrity of the material; whereas, plastic bottles must be “downcycled” into other materials, such as carpeting or tiling, rather than maintaining its original properties. Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, states that once in the recycling bin,¬†a glass bottle can be recycled into another bottle in under 30 days.

Given that glass is becoming competitively cheaper to produce, that it can be recycled more efficiently, and that plastic produces a very real threat to our oceans and its food chains, glass containers are a better bet for consumers provided they use that recycle bin!

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