A looking glass on plastic

Alex writes*

While reusable water bottles and soda streams are promising an end to the consumption of single-use bottles, both products fail to provide a range of liquids for which there will continue to be a demand, from juices and alcoholic beverages to milk (but most probably milk alternatives). As much as we would like to survive on tap water alone, methods of transporting liquids linearly from producers to consumers are still necessary. The current method, relying on light-weight plastic, is causing major damage to the environment, with the Indian state of (Maharshtra even going so far as to ban PET bottles)[ https://www.foodpackagingforum.org/news/india-restricts-use-of-pet-bottles] smaller than half a litre.

In the (Netherlands alone, 1.4 billion plastic bottles were consumed in 2017)[https://www.statista.com/statistics/792687/plastic-bottle-annual-consumption-netherlands/], and while bottle-specific numbers are unknown, the (recycling rate for plastic waste was only 51%)[https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/refreshTableAction.do?tab=table&plugin=1&pcode=ten00063&language=en] the previous year. Now granted, that’s higher than the (EU average rate of 42%)[https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/refreshTableAction.do?tab=table&plugin=1&pcode=ten00063&language=en], but while there’s been a 14-fold increase in the amount of plastic collected by waste services, the quality of that plastic is steadily decreasing, making recycling more difficult both physically and economically speaking according to the (this NOS article)[https://nos.nl/artikel/2180102-meer-plastic-ingezameld-maar-het-wordt-steeds-smeriger.html]. It goes on to say that the cause behind the quality slump may be faulty separation of plastics by households or residuals within the plastic such as food waste – but whichever it is, the national waste processing deficit of 120 million is likely to increase if this continues. (This study) [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956053X17307808] supports that assertion, stating that besides collection response and mechanical recovery, where recycling systems fall short are their sorting processes which often allow for plastics to be contaminated with other non-suitable plastics. Brouwer et al., continue by saying that the majority of plastic-based contaminants originate from the products themselves, and therefore that designs should work towards minimising the variety of plastics that they are composed of.

But what if we were to deviate from plastics altogether? Well, an old-fashioned alternative is glass, which had a 79% recycling rate (32% higher than plastic) in the Netherlands in 2013 and is also infinitely recyclable. The dilemma is that so far, (this study)[ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652616311234], and (this one)[ https://posterng.netkey.at/esr/viewing/index.php?module=viewing_poster&task=viewsection&pi=128424&ti=425546&si=1477&searchkey=] AND (this one)[https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314100348_Comparison_of_Life_Cycle_Assessment_of_PET_Bottle_and_Glass_Bottle] have attributed more environmental costs to glass bottles than plastic for the same functional unit, while (this study)[ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652615007209] has given nuance to the argument, saying that the majority of the impacts are from transporting the heavy glass and therefore such a generalisation is risky. Additionally, recycling and circularity of the products were not fully discussed in either studies, so I believe that there’s ample reason to further investigate.

Bottom Line: What difference would it make to the environment if all our single-use bottles were glass or PET plastic? And how much does it depend on creating a closed-loop system?

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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