Unveiling the Complexity: Exploring the Limitations of Glass, Paper, and Other Alternatives to Plastic

Unveiling the Complexity: Exploring the Limitations of Glass, Paper, and Other Alternatives to Plastic

, by Planet Green, 6 min reading time

The search for a suitable alternative to plastic has proven to be a formidable task. Plastic, renowned for its affordability, durability, and versatility, has dominated various industries for decades. However, an array of innovative solutions have emerged in recent years, ranging from cling wrap derived from potato waste to seaweed-based food wrappers and cassava starch bags.

Additionally, companies have been exploring alternatives like glass, metal, and paper for packaging a wide range of products. Despite these efforts, the global issue of plastic pollution continues to escalate, prompting the initiation of a worldwide treaty to address this mounting problem. However, experts assert that attaining this objective will likely require the development of more effective substitutes, a challenge that has left many environmentalists and sustainability researchers perplexed.

Replacing plastic, a material deeply ingrained in our society due to its affordability, durability, and versatility, is no simple feat. "Plastics need to be addressed," emphasized Michael Shaver, Director of the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub at the University of Manchester. "However, merely transitioning to another material without carefully considering the consequences could lead to unforeseen risks."


While conventional plastics are derived from fossil fuels, the crux of the issue lies not so much in the material itself, but rather in the way we handle them at the end of their lifecycle.

"It's the lack of responsible treatment that poses the problem," asserted Shaver. "We haven't been diligent in managing the disposal of these materials.”

A significant portion of produced plastic does not undergo recycling. Melissa Valliant, Communications Director for the advocacy organization Beyond Plastics, highlighted that this challenge is not solely due to individuals incorrectly sorting their waste. Rather, it is primarily because many plastic products are not designed for recyclability.

In the United States, recycling facilities typically possess the capability to effectively process only types No. 1 and 2 plastic. Additionally, a peer-reviewed study conducted on a recycling facility in the United Kingdom revealed that 6 to 13 percent of the processed plastic could potentially be released into the environment as microplastics, finding their way into water bodies or the atmosphere.

Nonetheless, it's crucial to acknowledge that alternative packaging materials may also present their own set of recycling challenges and drawbacks when compared to plastic.

"It's important to note that none of these solutions are inherently flawed, but there isn't a one-size-fits-all remedy," clarified Shaver. "There isn't a single solution that universally addresses all needs and circumstances.”

Assessing the Performance of Common Plastic Alternatives

Glass:

Glass, composed of natural materials like sand, soda ash, and limestone, undergoes a high-temperature melting process. Unlike plastic, glass is often highly reusable and can be recycled multiple times without significant degradation in quality.

However, the weight of glass poses challenges during long-distance transportation, leading to increased costs, as noted by Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University. Glass is also more prone to breakage compared to plastic, aluminum, and paper.

Both the production and recycling of glass require substantial amounts of energy, according to experts. Michael Shaver highlights the importance of coupling glass recycling with renewable energy sources to avoid trading one waste problem for another energy-related issue.


“Nonetheless, glass may be the preferred choice for refill systems where transportation distances are short,” Shaver added.

Aluminum:

The production of primary aluminum, which involves mining minerals like bauxite, can have detrimental environmental impacts and high energy requirements. However, aluminum possesses the advantage of being lightweight and recyclable.

Rabnawaz emphasizes that aluminum is challenging to produce from raw materials, making recycling crucial to derive its benefits. Recycling aluminum cans, for instance, is estimated to save 95 percent of the energy needed to produce the same amount of aluminum from virgin sources.

Aluminum recycling, which involves melting the material, presents its own complexities. Similar to glass, aluminum can be recycled numerous times while maintaining its integrity. However, aluminum cans typically have a thin plastic coating on the inside serving as a protective lining, according to Shaver.

"When the aluminum is melted down, the plastic coating is burned, so we are essentially burning the plastic component and then recycling the container," he explained.

Paper:

Paper, known for its recyclability, is generally regarded as one of the more environmentally sustainable materials, according to Laszlo Horvath, an associate professor and director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech.

However, the recycling process for paper is environmentally intensive and damaging. Horvath explains that it requires a substantial amount of chemicals, energy, and water. Similar to plastic, maintaining the quality of paper after recycling can be challenging, as highlighted by Shaver.

“Although an increasing number of companies are utilizing paper for product packaging, experts point out that it may have limitations compared to plastic or aluminum. Particularly when it comes to packaging liquids, paper is often not an ideal alternative material,” states Horvath.

Additionally, recycling paper-based beverage containers poses difficulties, as noted by Rabnawaz.

Bioplastics, Biodegradables, and Compostables:

To begin, it is crucial to understand the meanings behind these terms. The designation of "bioplastic" or "biopolymer" typically indicates that the material is derived from a biological source, which can include food products, food waste, or agricultural waste, according to Shaver.

"Bioplastics do not necessarily imply biodegradability or compostability," clarifies Shaver. The terms can be confusing for consumers, making it challenging to determine whether products marketed as biodegradable or compostable truly possess those qualities. Shaver emphasizes that many materials are industrially biodegradable or compostable, but not necessarily in natural environments, oceans, or home composting settings. Moreover, the presence of different certifications for products increases the risk of greenwashing, where misleading claims of environmental friendliness are made.

Regardless of the material used, Shaver underscores the importance of considering the fate of packaging after its use. Merely being recyclable is irrelevant if the material isn't recycled. Similarly, biodegradability is meaningless if the material doesn't undergo biodegradation. Reusability holds no value if the item isn't reused. The ultimate focus should be on the end-of-life management of packaging.

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