Are Some Packaging Materials “Better” Than Others?

Almost every product we buy comes in some form of packaging, and most people don’t think about where it might end up once it is discarded. If packaging is not properly disposed of, there can be serious consequences.

When we throw packaging in the trash, we lose the natural resources it contains. There is such a variety of packaging materials available that it can be difficult to know whether they are recyclable. Widely used materials such as plastic, glass, metals, polystyrene (Styrofoam), or paper can often end up in landfills, causing significant harm to the environment. To add to this complexity, the types of products recycling programs will accept often varies.

But is there a feasible solution to this problem? Packaging is derived from natural resources and, ideally, we want to be able to utilize those natural resources as many times as possible to make new products, thus supporting a circular economy.

Many eco-conscious consumers are looking for ways to live less wasteful lives, by selecting products that are widely recyclable in today’s recycling infrastructure, made with recycled content, or by making efforts to reuse the packaging they have already purchased.

Let’s take a closer look at the issues to consider with common packaging materials.

Glass

Glass is composed of natural entities, such as sand, soda ash, and limestone. When melted together at an extremely high temperature, these entities form a liquid that later cools and solidifies into glass. Glass has been around for thousands of years, and today 20 million tons of glass products are made every year in the United States alone.

The Pros of Using Glass

One of the biggest advantages of glass is that it is 100 percent recyclable. While the quality of some other materials can degrade with each cycle, glass used for food and beverage storage can be reproduced with no such loss. Glass also has a quick recycling turnover rate. According to the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), recycled food storage glass can be back on store shelves in as little as 30 days.

Another perk to using glass is that it is non-toxic. Glass is free from harmful chemicals, and it should have no adverse effect on your stored food products or your health.

Recycled glass, or “cullet,” can also help the environment by reducing emissions, limiting the consumption of raw materials, and saving energy.

The Cons of Using Glass

Glass is extremely heavy compared to many other packaging materials such as plastic, metal (when used in small quantities), and fiber, making it heavier to transport per unit.

Additionally, like most packaging materials, only a fraction of glass packaging gets recycled. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated that only 31 percent of all glass in the United States was recycled—with most of the remainder ending up in landfills and the natural environment, where it will take thousands of years to decompose. In addition, some curbside recycling programs around the country have decided to exclude glass containers from their list of acceptable items for collection.

Glass is also a heavy, fragile material, which can make transporting it in large quantities difficult.

Plastic

Plastic is a polymer that comes from different natural elements, such as natural gas, oil, coal, minerals, and plants. In an act called polymerization, these materials are refined into ethane and propane, heated at high temperatures to break down into ethylene and propylene, and later rearranged into different plastic polymers. It also is important to know that there are several different plastic resin types. On a plastic product you can look at the Recycling Identification Code (RIC), which provides a numbering system stamped onto a product to differentiate between the resin types.

Plastic production has only been around for a little over a century and has proliferated in its use. According to the EPA, in 2018 plastics generation in the United States was 35.7 million tons.

The Pros of Using Plastic

From a shipping standpoint, plastic is a great option for business use. As a durable, flexible, and lightweight material, plastic is extremely versatile and can be used for a variety of packaging applications. Certain resin types are chosen for their unique properties to contain specific types of products. Plastic is very useful to protect and preserve goods while reducing weight in transportation, which helps save fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Cons of Using Plastic

When plastic packaging finds its way into our waterways and larger bodies of water, it poses a threat to wildlife as a choking hazard to many animals. Trash from plastic packaging, as with all litter, can also affect aquatic plant life. The EPA states that floating trash can block out sunlight and deplete oxygen levels in the ocean, all of which are necessary for underwater photosynthesis.

Not all plastics are readily recyclable using today’s recycling infrastructure. It’s difficult to differentiate between the varying types of plastics to know which can be easily recycled, and how. As an example, PET water bottles and HDPE detergent bottles are some of the more common and easily recycled plastic packaging options, but less commonly recycled plastics are very likely to end up in a landfill.

Metal

Materials like aluminum, tin, and steel are all used to package and preserve goods. They come in many forms, but most often one will find these metals in the form of cans, foil, or the metal found in multi-layered flexible pouches. The use of metals in packaging dates back to 1810, when the tin can was invented. It became a widely used form of food packaging as it allowed foods to retain freshness while preventing natural acids from developing.

The Pros of Using Metal

Metal packaging blocks outside elements such as sunlight, allowing food to remain fresh. It is a strong material that can protect its contents, and it will not break down as easily as some other materials.

While tough and durable, metal can also easily be worked into a variety of different shapes to accommodate a range of packaging needs. The lightweight composition of some metals, aluminum in particular, allows for lower shipping costs; and many types of metal packaging use a significant amount of recycled content to make the product.

Another advantage to metal packaging is that it can be recycled infinitely at a cost-effective, energy efficient rate. According to the Aluminum Association, “Making recycled aluminum only takes around five percent of the energy needed to make new aluminum—reducing carbon emissions and saving money for businesses and end consumers. As a result, nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.”

The Cons of Using Metal

As with other packaging that extracts natural resources, mining has an environmental impact through the extraction of raw ore from the ground. It is for this reason that it is especially important to reuse and recycle metal packaging.

Fiber (Paperboard)

Fiber-based packaging, also known as paperboard, is typically made from fibrous materials such as pulpwood, recovered paper, old corrugated cardboard (OCC), wheat straw, or other natural materials. This material has seen an increase in demand in the last two decades, having doubled its production in that time. The most common uses for paperboard are beverage cartons and food or candy packaging.

The Pros of Using Fiber

Paperboard is often created from recycled materials, it can be recycled itself, and it can be biodegradable if it meets certain industry standards.

It is a versatile material that can be easily adapted to fit various needs such as cartons, cereal boxes, trays, boxes, large bins, and more. If your business deals with any products that are fragile, paperboard can be used as extra padding to add a layer of protection.

The Cons of Using Fiber

According to the EPA, paper containers and packaging currently have a recycling rate of just 20.8 percent. Paperboard and other fibrous packaging materials at times are not as durable as metal, plastic, or glass. This presents difficulties with shipping. It is not as easily stackable, it holds weaker barrier properties than its competitors, and it is more prone to moisture damage. Similarly, paper packaging doesn’t have good barrier properties to extend product shelf life when compared to metal, glass, or plastic.

Taking all of this into consideration, is there any single packaging material that is better than the rest? This is a complex question with many variables. Each type of packaging has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is a place for each depending on the nature of your business, what products you are selling, how you are transporting them, and several other factors. It is worth taking a closer look at the packaging materials your business is using to evaluate their cost effectiveness, environmental friendliness, and the well-being of your consumers.

Rubicon’s Packaging Recycling Solutions

At Rubicon, we help businesses of all sizes find appropriate recycling solutions for all their waste streams to keep as much material out of landfills as possible and advance our mission to end waste.

If you have any questions, or are interested in learning more about Rubicon’s packaging recycling services, please contact us today.


Meredith Leahy is Sr. Manager, Circular Economy at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today. 

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