Always having a reuseable option on hand. Saying no to extra packaging. Shopping in bulk. There are many small ways we can reduce the number of containers we purchase, an important step in reducing the demand our society has developed for single-use items. However, sometimes we do need an item or two that requires bringing home a container that we won't re-use in our home forever.

What we have been wondering, is when presented with the option to choose between plastic, aluminum, and glass, what is the best choice? (This comes up most often with food storage) Turns out "best" is a relative term when it comes to answering this query. It sort of depends on what you are most concerned about: Emissions? Reusability? Climate Change? We really would like to have an answer that tells us what is the best option from an overall perspective. Basically, what makes the least impact?

We aren't the only ones who are curious about this quandary. We reviewed several articles from different organizations, and considered these 3 materials from a production, transportation, and life-cycle perspective. It was hard to decipher the biased information from the facts, but we think we have assembled a decent guide to help make this decision. 

It seems to be fairly universal that the single-use plastic is always the worst option, but for argument's sake, let's compare.  

Plastic

  • Most raw materials that go into plastic production come from crude oil. Which means, to get plastic, we need the process that mines fossil fuels out of the ground. We know this is wrought with environmental issues. It takes a lot of energy, it produces air pollution, water pollution, and has the potential to cause serious damage to natural ecosystems. From the crude oil stage, there are several steps to process the raw materials into useable polymers, again using more energy and resources.

"In 2007, researchers Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley estimated that satisfying the existing bottled water demand required the energy equivalent of between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil — that means producing plastic bottles each year releases more greenhouse gas emissions than over a million cars on the road. In 2013, the International Bottled Water Association released a study that estimated it took 1.39 liters of water to produce 1 liter of packaged water." - Recyclebank

  • Transporting plastic is easier and cheaper than other materials because it is so light and there is less risk of breaking it or denting it, so it can be packed in together tightly. It therefore uses less energy to get it between points.
  • Although recyclable to a certain point, if plastics end up in landfills, they will take at least 450 years, if not 1000 to break down. And as they do, they will leach contaminants into the ground as they decompose.
  • Another thing to consider is the impact on yourself. Do you really want to consume food or drink that has been stored for long periods of time in a material that comes from fossil fuels? Who knows what is leaching out of those containers. Yes, many plastics are approved and deemed safe, but we can't help but still wonder...
  • Note: These facts refer to the more traditional plastics made from fossil fuels, and do not account for the tech that is coming up these days like bioplastics, avocado plastics, mushroom plastics, etc. We will explore that soon!

Aluminum

  • Aluminum starts out as bauxite ore (which polished up in its natural form is actually quite pretty). Extracting the mineral from the ground is not a great process. When done especially irresponsibly, it can contaminate water sources and leave the landscape scarred and basically unuseable, especially to any wildlife that once made a home there. From the mine, the raw materials need to be refined, smelted, and made into cans. Even without any details, that all sounds like it is likely to take up a lot of energy (it does). Plus, most of the mines exist in countries like Australia, China, Brazil, India and Guinea, with nearly none existing in North America. So either the finished product or raw materials must be shipped to all other countries.
  • The benefit of aluminum cans is that they are lightweight and not as easily damaged as glass, so transporting them is easier, or at least uses less fuel. More can be moved at once, and with less protective packaging.
  • There are positive reports on the recycling of aluminum (although the stats we found were from the USA). They are completely recyclable, which is great, and seem to be the most commonly recaptured material from the recycling process. And it takes a fraction of the energy to create a new can from recycled materials, then from raw materials. So a recycled aluminum can is a decent option, and could even end up back in your home in less than 90 days. Those that do end up in landfills however, take over 500 years to break down and leach chemicals into the ground, much the same as plastic. 

Glass

  • "Glass is made from readily-available domestic materials, such as sand, soda ash, limestone and “cullet,” the industry term for furnace-ready recycled glass." - Glass Packaging Institute That won't always be entirely true, as those raw materials don't exist just anywhere, but they are more common than say bauxite. It also depends on what the glass is being produced for, and if it needs additional components. "Glass makers use a slightly different process depending on the type of glass they want to make. Usually, other chemicals are added to change the appearance or properties of the finished glass." - explainthatstuff.com
  • All the raw materials have to be heated in a furnace to melt together, and then poured into molds to make bottles and containers, or into forms to make window panes. This takes energy to heat the ingredients and run the machinery needed to form the final products. 
  • Transportation is where glass loses points. It is heavy, so it takes more fuel, And it is fragile, so not as much of it can be packed together tightly, and it requires more protective wrapping. 
  • Recycling glass can be expensive and complicated as well. Glass needs to be sorted and decontaminated, crushed, transported to another facility, and then combined with raw materials and melted in a very hot furnace. That's quite a bit of energy expenditure. It would seem that not as much glass makes it into the recycling process as even aluminum, which is really too bad since "...glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity." - Glass Packaging Institute Glass that does make it into landfills will stick around for a million years, but at least they are inert, and will not leach anything harmful into the surroundings.
  • Even with it's difficulties in recycling, it has been estimated that glass has the lowest carbon footprint, which at the end of the day, might be the most important measure.
  • One thing we did not see mentioned is that glass containers generally have metal lids to seal them, or even plastic, so even when you are choosing glass, you are usually choosing a small amount of another material. Something to keep in mind.

Much like these other articles have concluded, petroleum based plastics are out of the running and it would seem there are positives and negatives to both glass and aluminum. If you are someone who likes to re-purpose items, glass is probably your best bet. With the lowest carbon footprint overall, and no danger of chemical leaching, it has lots of positives stacked in its favour. However, aluminum products tend to have a higher percentage of post-consumer content, and are easier to transport.

You may be presented with this dilemma when purchasing things like sauces and beverages, things you can't make at home; we hope this information helps. When it comes to food, as much as you can, opt for whole foods that you can buy using reusable containers and cloth bulk bags. Cooking at home more also decreases the amount of single-use containers you use.

One more note on recycling. The sad thing we have to think about, is no matter how good we are at home, many items that we meticulously sort out into bins don't get recycled. That doesn't mean we shouldn't still do it though! Taking your items to the recycling depot or putting them in a blue bin for pick up is still good. We need to show policy makers who have the power to fund programs that we care! So stay on top of those initiatives and always do your best to responsibly re-use or recycle your containers. 

Now, we haven't visited landfills, we haven't been to bauxite mines, or oil fields. We are basing our opinions in what we are trusting are the facts. Pulling raw materials out of the Earth never really seems like it ends well; these resources are not infinite. Every generation is on borrowed time, borrowed from future generations. What we are hoping, is that we will see a globally recognized need to slow down the pillaging of our Earth. It just can't take it. Remember your 4 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and refuse. And make the best choices you can.

April 26, 2019 by Emily Williams

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