When it comes to packaging, plastic is no good. But what’s the most sustainable packaging solution? The answer is more difficult than you might think.
Choosing a more sustainable type of packaging does matter, as the packaging industry is the dominant user of primary plastic in the world, accounting for about 42% of globally produced plastic. This incredible growth in the packaging industry was caused by a global shift from reusable to single-use containers. In 2015, the packaging industry used 146 million tonnes of plastic with an average lifetime of just six months or less.
If you count yourself as one of the millions of people around the world who joined the Plastic Free July challenge and like to make environmentally conscious choices, you probably wonder about more sustainable alternatives for packaging.
Well, if the packaging cannot be avoided (which, of course, is the best solution), you have a few choices left. You may use glass, aluminium or cardboard. However, there is no right or wrong answer to tell you which one of these materials is the most sustainable packaging option. Every material has its pros and cons, as its weight on the environment depends on many variables.
Different materials, different carbon footprints
To select packaging that has the least impact on the environment, we have to look at the big picture. We have to compare the entire lifecycle of various types of packaging, including variables such as sourcing the raw material, manufacturing cost, transport footprint, and the recyclability and reusability rates.
Glass is the preferred packaging for liquids and food storage for many people because it is non-toxic, safe, nonporous and does not let any chemicals leach in. The biggest advantage of glass packaging is its reusability, recyclability and long lifespan — an estimated 80% of used glass containers are used to make new packaging, and it can be recycled endlessly without losing quality.
Unfortunately, glass manufacturing requires a massive amount of energy, which generates a large carbon footprint and a high cost of production. In some areas, recycling is not possible due to high costs and the need for special equipment.
Furthermore, glass is very fragile, and it is more likely to break during transport. Its heavy weight creates bigger constraints for a transportation footprint. Once the glass life cycle is finished, it takes up to a million years to decompose.
Aluminium is a highly versatile, non-toxic and light material resistant to corrosions. Due to its lightweight, it creates the lowest transportation footprint and is easy to transport. It is also the most recycled material in the world.
In fact, 75% of aluminium ever produced is still in use today. Aluminium can be reused and recycled endlessly. However, a lot of valuable aluminium is thrown away and gets lost in landfills, where it takes up to 500 years to decompose.
Aluminium is declared safe for food packaging, but several studies link aluminium to the potential development of various diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or inflammatory bowel disease. Nevertheless, the exact role or amount of aluminium is yet to be determined as a potential risk factor for causing such diseases.
Paper, cardboard, and paperboard are light packaging materials frequently used for shipping, storing, and marketing. It is easy to print branding right onto cardboard. Additionally, corrugated cardboard is 100% recyclable, with an average lifespan of two to five months.
Recycling corrugated cardboard does not cause any wastage or leakage of harmful dyes or bleaches. It comes from a renewable resource that does not use fossil fuels. The downside of cardboard packaging is inappropriate management of forests, which is often not sustainable. Therefore, you should always look for FSC certification, which verifies responsible and sustainable management of forests and wood sourcing.
Read our story on how brands are innovating with plastic alternatives in packaging.
Manufacturing and sourcing of packaging materials
While glass packaging is great for recycling and reusing, it is not so great for sustainability. Glass is made of non-renewable materials, including limestone, silica, soda ash or liquified sand. Limestone mining can be damaging for the environment, as it affects ground and surface water conditions, increasing the chances of flooding, changes in water quality, and disruption of a natural flow. This may result in increased dust, high levels of noise, vibration, soil erosions, and loss of habitats
Aluminium is more sustainable and efficient. However, the primary source of aluminium is bauxite, which is extracted through an environmentally damaging process, including the removal of large chunks of land and vegetation. This results in dust pollution.
Paper and carton are the only packaging material sourced from fully renewable resources. Most of the trees used for paper manufacturing are planted and harvested just for this purpose. Harvesting trees does not necessarily mean it is bad for the environment. Trees consume a lot of carbon dioxide, so planting and harvesting more trees means consuming more carbon dioxide and creating more oxygen in the atmosphere.
Depending on your needs and where you live, you may find that some packaging materials work better for you than others, and that is totally fine. Just remember, no packaging is the way to go.
Buying products wrapped in no packaging or purchasing products in your own containers and reusable bags is probably the most sustainable and planet-friendly option.