How plastic panic could lay waste glass benefits

I don’t for one minute want to denigrate the effort the plastics packaging industry is making. But the aspirations of the UK Plastics Pact, launched by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) in April, do starkly highlight fundamental differences between plastic and glass.

By 2025, the plastics sector is aiming for 100 per cent of plastic packaging is to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70 per cent to be effectively recycled or compostable and 30 per cent average recycled content.

Whereas glass packaging is already 100 per cent recyclable. Its unique chemistry makes it non-toxic and safe to recycle indefinitely, even for food contact, achieving 67 per cent recycling and routinely using 30 to 80 per cent recycled content, depending on the colour of container.

Glass packaging is already 100 per cent recyclable

When it comes to recycling and circular economy principles, glass already scores well. So what? So it’s vital we don’t fall into the trap of one-size-fits-all government interventions designed to grapple with one packaging material’s problems extended arbitrarily to other materials. Each packaging material must be dealt with based on its specific properties and uses, otherwise we risk undermining what glass already gives us.

Deposit return schemes for drinks packaging are one example. Such schemes might well be a sensible approach for plastic given its dominance in a myriad of combination formats for on-the-go consumption (making littering more prevalent).

But glass packaging is rarely used on-the-go and chemically is all the same, from a spice jar to a champagne bottle, making recycling infinitely simpler. For glass, deposit return on drinks bottles is an overly complex and expensive way to fix what isn’t fundamentally broken.

A multi-billion-pound taxpayer funding boost to research into more environmentally safe plastic formulations is probably also a sound investment; realistically removing all plastic from the world is untenable. Even I wouldn’t suggest glass works for frozen peas or crisps. But let’s put similar investment into the areas where glass has already made progress and can achieve more; energy use in initial production being key.

The glass industry has already reduced the average weight of bottles by 30 per cent over the past decade, by improving process control in manufacturing. British Glass members and experts are also working with scientists at Glass Technology Services on new coatings that can increase strength significantly, potentially enabling a further reduction in weight.

The industry has been one of the most proactive sectors in working with government to formulate a roadmap and action plan for decarbonisation and energy efficiency. British Glass is supporting this with practical help to the industry. Being able to recycle more glass is also part of this because every tonne of cullet (processed waste glass) used saves at least 246kg of CO2 emissions.

In glass we already have an endlessly recyclable, non-toxic packaging material, so my plea to government is this: make relatively simple adjustments to the existing collection systems that will deliver the extra, high-quality glass for recycling that manufacturers want, which will help further drive down CO2 emissions. And match the investment for research into plastic formulations with investment into developing glass manufacturing technology so energy use and environmental impact can be reduced even further.

All packaging materials are different and each has its role to play in a sustainable economy. It would be a tragic irony if panic over plastics undermines the environmental benefits that glass already provides.

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As well as chief executive of British Glass, Mr Dalton represents the interests of UK glass manufacturing to government and other key stakeholders. He is also an executive member of the Glass Alliance Europe board, acting on behalf of the European glass sector at the European Commission and EU Parliament. He has worked in the glass sector for more than 35 years and is an analytical chemist by qualification and training.