Is Glass Packaging Actually Sustainable?
Living Environment

Is Glass Packaging Actually Sustainable?

Will Titterington
Will Titterington

We all know that plastic is pretty bad for the environment (we’re being kind — it’s awful unless it’s recycled), but what about glass?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been told that glass is good for the environment. Maybe you have friends who are, like, literally mason jar-obsessed. But what’s the true story here? Is glass really all that? Does it get a pass simply because it’s (apparently) better than plastic?

I decided to find out…

Why we are writing this article, or the potential glass problem

Since glass is made entirely from natural materials and is therefore 100% recyclable, it might make no sense for us to be even having the glass vs. environment debate. But there are issues.

When glass is made, sand is required. And while you might argue that there’s clearly plenty of sand available, we’re actually using more sand than you can shake a stick at right now. In fact, the world is actually running out of sand. More glaringly, we use more of it than we do of oil.

Worse still, anytime you take sand out of its natural habitat, you break a chain in the ecosystem. Even worse than that, when sand is removed, local communities are more susceptible to erosion and flooding.

We also have to consider that other raw materials are used in the production of glass, including limestone and soda ash, and that the production process itself is very taxing on the environment. Each time some new glass is made, energy is required and more emissions are released into the atmosphere. The furnaces that help in the process, moreover, require fossil fuels to run. This means more emissions and more pollution.

The problems with glass aren’t just limited to the production process, though: glass is not only heavier than plastic but it’s also easier to break when it’s being transported.

Then there’s the fact that, whilst glass can be recycled, most humans don’t actually recycle it. This is a major bummer because glass can be used to make new glass, which means fewer raw materials will be needed. Of course, this isn’t really a glass problem but a human problem. But still.

What happens to glass if you just throw it away?

If you throw glass into the garbage, it’s going to end up in a landfill. From there, it will be burned or buried. Neither is a good option.

What happens if you recycle glass?

Glass is recyclable — 100%. If you recycle the glass, it will almost always be turned into new glass. This is cool.

It’s important to remember that glass has an unlimited life and can keep being recycled over and over to make new glass. It never loses quality, unlike plastic and paper.

The glass is crushed, then blended, and then melted with sand, limestone, and other raw materials, including more glass. The end result is new jars and bottles that don’t look any different to all the other jaws and bottles you’ve seen before. They’re all as good as new.

I heard it’s better to buy things packaged in glass than in plastic. Why?

Coca Cola are making billions more plastic bottles than ever — do they really not see the plastic problem?

Or maybe there isn’t one?

I mean, buying glass bottles instead of plastic ones can save you money. But is it better for the environment in the long term? Are Coca Cola right to double down on plastic?

Glass requires energy to make. In fact, it actually requires more energy than plastic and so consequently has a bigger carbon footprint.

Glass is more durable than its plastic counterpart, though, and its lifespan is unlimited (unless you break it, of course). If you keep upcycling and recycling glass, it never dies. A hero.

And while it is made from raw materials such as limestone and sand — raw materials that are ever decreasing in quantity — the fact that it’s made from these natural substances is what makes it infinitely recyclable.

Plastic can also be recycled. It’s lighter than glass, doesn’t break during transportation, and it can be changed into other products via downcycling. As mentioned, it has a smaller carbon footprint than glass, too.

The problem with both glass and plastic is that, while some of us around the world have educated ourselves when it comes to recycling and now recycle habitually, many others still need to catch up. Only 9% of the million plastic bottles that are bought per minute are recycled. When plastic isn’t recycled, it ends up in landfills or oceans; then, it releases bad boy substances into the ozone layer, killing sea life and polluting our atmosphere.

Some plastics are also made from harmful materials and they can also leach nasty chemicals. Plastic is not 100% natural, unlike glass.

Overall, it’s almost a tie between glass and plastic — but glass just shades it. Whatever you buy, the main thing is that you recycle.

Is glass bad for the ocean?

The ocean has been taking a hit for decades thanks to the way we casually dispose of plastic.

Then there’s the trash problem, the pollution problem, the overexploitation of fishing resources, the marine engineering, the unsustainable aquaculture, the oil drilling… I could go on.

In short, our magnificent oceans are becoming a cesspool.

Because glass is 100% recyclable and made entirely from natural materials, it’s non-toxic, naturally protective — and does not harm the ocean.

Is glass safe?

We’ve been told that the chemicals in plastic have the potential to get into our food and drink and cause us some nasty long-term health side effects, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Glass, on the other hand, is actually the only mainstream packaging material that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have classed as “generally recognized as safe.”

Final thoughts

Glass has its issues. But, hey, no one is perfect. Moreover, if more people educated themselves on recycling, and if more of us adopted it until it became a habit, glass would have less issues.

Think about it: While new glass uses up valuable, finite raw materials like sand, if we recycled every single glass bottle we ever used, we’d solve that problem. Or better yet, why don't you reuse and upcycle glass bottles and jars as storage and glassware?

Of course, it would also be nice to somehow shorten the transportation length, too. But because glass is at least A-okay for the ocean, and because it’s made entirely from natural substances, glass might not be perfect but it’s better than plastic.

Overall verdict: room for improvement.

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