Most of us are consumers, buying the things we eat, wear and decorate our homes with, either online or in the shops. And most of us conscious consumers are aware of the frustrations of too much packaging. Double plastic wrapped cucumbers, books arriving in cardboard boxes four times too big, those air-filled plastic pillows cushioning things that don’t need to be cushioned. Since the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge, it’s estimated that use has dropped by a whopping 85%. Which is amazing. But what about everything else? And what’s the real impact of packaging on the environment and our health?
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition have a fantastic tool called COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment Software) which is a valuable source of information on the environmental impacts of different types of packaging. For this piece, I have compared the manufacture of 100g of each material. 100g of cling film will obviously go a lot further than 100g of glass, but it provides a useful comparison nonetheless.
Glass bottles and jars
Glass is made from heating silica (sand), sodium carbonate and calcium carbonate until liquid, which is then poured into moulds to form bottles and jars. Around 60% of glass manufactured today is made from recycled glass. It’s widely recyclable and reusable (it can be recycled an infinite amount of times). Fossil fuel and water consumption is low compared to plastic manufacture, it’s safe for use in a microwave and doesn’t leach chemicals into food1.
Due to its weight, it does however incur more transportation costs; heavier loads mean more fuel to power the vehicles carrying it, and the outer, secondary packaging, usually cardboard and plastic wraps, needs to be more heavy duty.
One fifth of the glass produced in the EU is made by Germany2, but worldwide, China is by far the biggest producer. As we can’t be certain where our jam jar or wine bottle has been made, we can assume that there are air miles and carbon emissions associated with its transportation (like with all other packaging mentioned here). If sent to landfill instead of for recycling, it’ll never fully decompose.
Manufacturing one aluminium drinks can from scratch uses the same amount of energy as making 20 from recycled aluminium. Recycling 1kg of aluminium saves 12kg of raw materials and chemicals and 14kwH of electricity. Aluminium can be recycled an infinite number of times, but if sent to landfill, will take around 500 years to fully decompose.
China produces more than 24 million tonnes of aluminium a year. Compared with Norway, which produces 1.3 million tonnes and is our closest aluminium producing neighbour in the world’s top ten list.
It naturally and abundantly exists in the earth’s core combined with bauxite. Bauxite is processed into aluminium oxide before being converted to pure aluminium. Bauxite mining strips local areas of ecosystems and bauxite residues, known as red sludge, are caustic and seriously damage local wildlife and the health of nearby communities. The manufacturing process uses huge amounts of energy and water and results in high carbon emissions. The smelting process uses coal and is therefore incredibly draining on fossil fuels. The transportation form China to the UK is an obvious issue too, but it’s lighter than glass and therefore isn’t as energy intensive to transport.
As aluminium occurs naturally in the earth, many of our meats, fruits and vegetables contain it at low levels. Working in its manufacture or living near mines and processing plants can result in aluminium toxicity3, symptoms of which include bone and muscle problems and seizures. There are also concerns over its use in antacids, baking powder, vaccines and some infant formulas.
Aluminium foil vs cling film
Surprisingly, it takes more fossil fuels and creates more greenhouse gasses to manufacture aluminium foil than it does cling film. However, aluminium foil can be recycled to make more aluminium products, whereas cling film, which is usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), in the UK (this type of cling film is banned in America) isn’t generally recyclable. (Although Polyprint, based in Norwich, does accept cling film for recycling, along with other polythene products.) Water consumption during the manufacture of PVC is huge compared to other plastics.
China is again the biggest manufacturer of PVC in the world. The manufacture of PVC and cling film originates from the crude oil and kerosene industries. Resins are added to give it its ‘clingyness’ (making it generally non-recyclable and can also include animal-derived gelatine) and more than half of the mass of PVC is chlorine. Dioxins from this chlorine are produced during the manufacture and the eventual incineration of cling film (cling film will never fully decompose). Dioxins are highly toxic and are Persistent Environmental Pollutants. They can cause reproductive and developmental problems and lead to certain cancers4.
To make cling film stretchy, plasticisers called phthalates are added. Phthalates are linked with the disruption of hormones in young people (causing girls to reach puberty sooner, and reducing sperm counts in boys5), problems in foetal development, certain cancers, allergies and breathing problems such as asthma6. This is a problem during the leaching of these chemicals into the environment and also when they come into direct contact with food, especially during microwaving7.
Other plastic packaging
Some plastics can be recycled into other plastic products but they will never fully decompose. They’re lightweight to transport and as almost 30% of the worlds plastics are manufactured in China, this does reduce the impact of freighting. Plastics are manufactured using crude oil and petroleum, and is an industry responsible for long term pollution of air, water and land. Their eventual incineration (plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely) produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons8.
The problem of too many different types of plastic and confusing messaging means that recycling plants are often faced with contamination from the wrong type of plastic. Plastic recycling plants are also very energy intensive and inevitably, chemicals are leached into the environment during recycling.
Plastic manufacture often causes irreparable damage to local ecosystems which goes against the beliefs of many of us, vegan or otherwise. Plastics are often also manufactured using animal fats to make them more practical to use, such as flexible yet strong plastic carrier bags. But since plastics are non-food items, it’s not necessary for manufacturers to list what goes into them. The recent revelation that the new UK five pound note contains animal derived tallow highlights this point.
Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, packaging and coffee cups have been banned in many major towns and cities across the world. It’s a major contaminant of beaches, waterways and greenspaces and takes thousands of years to biodegrade, if at all. What it does do, is break down into tiny pieces of microplastic, which marine life often consume, and so in turn, it enters the human food chain. It is a by-product of petroleum, is not recyclable and contains hormone disrupting chemicals9.
Polycarbonate is a rigid plastic used in food storage containers, drinks bottles and baby bottles. It contains bisphenol A (BPA) a known toxic chemical that is found in the urine of most adults10. Alarming, since it’s almost ubiquitous use in food packaging. It has been linked with hormone related cancers, heart disease and disrupted hormones, puberty and menopause11. It’s manufacture results in the highest CO2 emissions of all plastic industries. Only certain local councils will recycle it.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET) is the most commonly used plastic for food packaging and drinks bottles. It is commonly recycled to make further plastic bottles and other products, but it isn’t an efficient process. PETE plastic bottles and containers are often reported as safe to eat and drink from but some research suggests that a chemical that mimics oestrogen can leach from it12.
Paper and cardboard
Both paper and cardboard are widely recyclable (but only around five times), and both are annoyingly overused in packaging, particularly for products delivered through the post and by courier. To be recycled, paper and card needs to be clean, so if food has left greasy stains behind, or it’s still covered in food, it can’t be recycled. This contamination is one of the biggest problems with paper and card recycling, along with contamination from glitter (in wrapping paper) and added waterproofing plastics in disposable food cartons and coffee cups.
The world produces 400 million tonnes of paper a year13, over half of which is manufactured in the US, China, Japan and Canada. Thankfully over half comes from recycled fibres but more needs to be done to be less wasteful and to protect our woodlands and rainforests from illegal logging. 40% of worldwide tree felling goes towards the manufacture of paper and cardboard.
The paper industry is the fourth highest user of energy, the largest amount of greenhouse gasses coming from the powering of the paper mills. Carbon emissions from burning wood, and water use from paper mills are also extraordinarily high. Chlorine based bleaches to make paper ‘eye pleasingly’ white end up leaching into waterways, damaging the health of ecosystems and local communities. Nitrogenous compounds also leach into the environment which pollute the air and cause the growth of algal blooms that strip waterways of oxygen, killing fish and other wildlife.
Paper only takes a few weeks to decompose, but given the requirements and demands of manufacture, its far better to recycle.
Making informed choices
All types of packaging leave some level of environmental footprint, but the more we educate ourselves and reduce our impact on the environment through our packaging, recycling and reusing choices, the better. Buying fresh produce from farmers markets often means its loose and not pre-packaged in plastic. We don’t need to use separate polythene bags to hold our apples, potatoes and cauliflowers in, we can just pop them straight into our unbleached, reusable, cotton shopping bags. We can reuse food cans as plant pots, store leftover food in jam jars instead of buying plastic food containers and add strips of material and ribbons to wine bottles to use as decorative candle holders (and gifts).
Let’s all try to avoid single use plastics altogether. Glass and metal containers have their manufacturing impacts, but they can be recycled or reused. Plastic sticks around forever. That means that every single piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form or another. Globally we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic annually, half of which is single use. It’s little wonder our landfills, oceans and beaches are clogged up with it. Choose and reuse bamboo picnicware over throw away plastic versions. Plant based packaging is not only vegan friendly, its 100% compostable.
We can all do our bit and contribute. Collectively, we can help spread the word that recycling doesn’t 100% justify the disastrous manufacturing impacts on the environment, even in seemingly eco materials such as paper. Recycling has its benefits, but the resources involved in recycling also needs to be considered. Reuse where you can, get creative and always think twice as a consumer, especially when buying plastic.
1 "Microwaving in Plastic: Is it Safe?" Time. May 04, 2016. http://time.com/4229503/plastic-in-microwave-is-it-safe/.
2 "Industries." Glass Industries - Glass Alliance Europe. 2016. http://www.glassallianceeurope.eu/en/industries.
3 Bernardo, Jose F. "Aluminum Toxicity Clinical Presentation." Aluminum Toxicity Clinical Presentation: History, Physical, Causes. April 15, 2015. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/165315-clinical.
4 "Dioxins and their effects on human health." World Health Organization. October 2016. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/.
5 Shi, H., Y. Cao, Q. Shen, Y. Zhao, Z. Zhang, and Y. Zhang. "Association Between Urinary Phthalates and Pubertal Timing in Chinese Adolescents." Journal of epidemiology. July 25, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26212725.
6 Westervelt, Amy. "Chemical enemy number one: how bad are phthalates really?" The Guardian. February 10, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/10/phthalates-plastics-chemicals-research-analysis.
7 Publications, Harvard Health. "Microwaving food in plastic: Dangerous or not?" Harvard Health. October 27, 2015. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/microwaving-food-in-plastic-dangerous-or-not.
8 North, Emily J., and Rolf U. Halden. "Plastics and Environmental Health: The Road Ahead." Reviews on environmental health. January 01, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3791860/.
9 Bittner, George D., Michael S. Denison, Chun Z. Yang, Matthew A. Stoner, and Guochun He. "Chemicals having estrogenic activity can be released from some bisphenol a-free, hard and clear, thermoplastic resins." Environmental Health. December 04, 2014. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-103.
10 Carwile, Jenny L., Henry T. Luu, Laura S. Bassett, Daniel A. Driscoll, Caterina Yuan, Jennifer Y. Chang, Xiaoyun Ye, Antonia M. Calafat, and Karin B. Michels. "Polycarbonate Bottle Use and Urinary Bisphenol A Concentrations." Environmental Health Perspectives. September 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737011/.
11 Konieczna, A., A. Rutkowska, and D. Rachoń. "Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA)." Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25813067.
12 Sohn, Emily. "PET bottles potential health hazard." ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation. April 28, 2009. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2009/04/29/2555698.htm.
13 "Pulp and paper." WWF. 2015. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/deforestation/forest_sector_transformation/pulp_and_paper/.