With increased awareness of the environmental issues related to packaging waste has come an influx of specialty Zero Waste and Refill stores selling everything from dog treats to shampoo with little to no packaging. However, these items can come at a higher price than your run of the mill items from the grocery store and getting to these niche stores can be a challenge if you don’t own a car. As a university student, I’ve done my fair share of hauling empty jars on a downtown bus, filling them up and then hauling them back home. And before there were so many dedicated refill stores, I had to go to multiple stores around town to get what I needed if I wanted it package free.
If you are lucky enough to have access to the type of stores I’m talking about, then you likely saw or heard of more than a few of them pausing their refill programs when COVID hit. While many have started back up again, there’s no certainty that they will be able to continue if case numbers keep rising.
So, for whatever reason Zero Waste or refill options aren’t available to you, it’s worth having some information about the different types of packaging so you can choose an option with the least negative impact to the environment. The most common types of packaging are glass, metal and of course plastic. All of them have positives and negatives but depending on things like where you live, one might be a better option over another. Let’s take a look!
Glass is probably the first option that comes to mind when we think of low waste packaging. Glass containers are easy to reuse or repurpose, and they can be recycled over and over again into new containers. When glass does need to be disposed of, it doesn’t react with substances in the environment to form harmful chemicals.
Glass does, however, use a lot of energy and resources to produce new containers. Even recycling glass into new things requires a lot of energy to melt it down. Both producing glass from scratch and recycling it cause harmful pollutants to be released into the environment. Glass is also heavy, which means that less product can be transported per kg of emissions compared to some other packaging options (assuming it’s being transported on a truck run by fossil fuels).
One of the biggest advantages that plastic has over glass is that it is very light. This means that more product can be transported per kg of emissions. Plastic containers can also be much easier to use depending on the product inside. Think of how easy it is to get ketchup out of a plastic squeeze bottle compared to a glass one. Plastic containers can also be reused and refilled but are less “attractive” than glass containers so many people don’t consider this option.
Did you know that almost every piece of plastic ever produced still exists? Unlike glass, plastic can only be recycled a handful of times before the quality degrades too much for it to be usable. In addition, different types of plastic may or may not be recyclable depending on where you live. Contaminating just one household recycling bin with the wrong type of plastic can cause an entire truck’s worth of recycling to be sent to a landfill instead. In the end, all plastic containers are destined to end up in the landfill, be incinerated, or escape into the environment. Plastic never really “goes away”. It sticks around for hundreds of years, just breaking into smaller and smaller pieces which are called microplastics. Whatever size it is along the way, plastic in the environment causes harm to all kinds of animals, as well as people. Of course, plastic is also made from fossil fuels, so making new plastics means extracting oil from the Earth, a very damaging process to the environment.
What about Bio-Plastics?
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world bioplastics and compostable plastics are a “sounds too good to be true” situation. Waste facilities have no way of separating out these bio-plastics from other plastics. So, unless you have access to special bins for these types of materials or the packaging is labelled as “home- compostable”, stick to other options if you can.
Metal containers are lighter than glass but slightly heavier than plastic. However, metal containers take less energy and resources to produce compared to both glass and plastic. Metal containers also have a very high recycling rate in Canada, coming in at 71% compared to 68% for glass and 59% for PET plastic bottles.
The downside of metal packaging is that producing it from scratch means mining raw materials. Mining is a very destructive process to the immediate environment around mining sites. In addition, mining processes cause water pollution effects that can extend far beyond the mine site itself. Metal containers are also less versatile when it comes to what products can be packaged in them, as well as their possibilities for reusing and refilling.
Questions to Ask When Choosing Packaging
So, how do you decide which material is best to choose from? The answer depends somewhat on factors specific to you. Here’s a few questions to ask yourself when choosing between products in different types of packaging:
- Is this packaging recyclable where I live?
- Can I reuse or repurpose this packaging?
- Is this packaging made from new or recycled material?
- Where was this product packaged and how far was it transported?
Until we have a robust universal system of refillable and reusable containers, we will have to contend with single-use packaging. As consumers, we have the power to tell the big corporations that we want more sustainable options. Refill or buy a package free if you can. When you can’t, remember that not all packaging is created equal and every small change can have a big impact.