When you pick up a glass bottle, you are holding 5,000 years of history in your hand. Glass was used as a reliable packaging option by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and right through Renaissance Europe to the present day.
The reason glass has survived so many millennia, and big businesses still use it today, is that it has several unique benefits:
1. It is 100% natural – made from the age-old combination of sand, soda ash and limestone.
2. It is an inert material that does not react with the food and drink it carries, and is able to preserve taste and vitamins without any chemicals.
3. Finally, when a glass bottle reaches the end of its life, it is 100% recyclable – it is melted down into what is known as cullet and used to produce more glass products.
But just like all other industries that consume natural materials, glass manufacturers want to make their products as environmentally sound as possible – even when they start at such an advanced point as glass.
The process of making glass bottles lighter – thus reducing the energy required to produce and transport them – has been a very important innovation in recent years. Current glass packaging is around 50% lighter than it used to be. Boundaries are still being pushed to create more sustainable glass bottles in this way – the lightest weight glass bottle available in the mineral water industry has just been released by Rawlings and Belu mineral water (trademarked Ethical Glass).
As a direct result of this improved product, Belu will save 850,000 kg of glass per year (equivalent to 2.1m wine bottles) and reduce its carbon emissions by a further 11%.
An alternative approach to make the glass (literally) greener, is to utilise the abundance of green glass we have. As net importers of wine, the UK in particular has a lot of green glass available. According to a study conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), switching from clear glass to green cuts packaging-related CO2 emissions by 20%. This is due to the higher recycled content in green glass bottles, which is as much as 72.4%, against an industry standard of 28.9%.
Unfortunately within the recycling industry, as colours of glass must be separated, a lot of recycled glass ends up in asphalt production, rather than as new glass products. For example, many restaurants have no formal scheme to collect and recycle their glass, resulting in unnecessary amounts being thrown away. Putting a scheme in place to rectify this will however hinge on a co-ordinated approach between local government authorities to bring efficiencies to the system – often a real sticking point.
Investment in the infrastructure to collect, sort and distribute cullet to the manufacturers is the most obvious effort required to scale up the sustainability of the glass industry. Did you know that Cullet has a much lower melting temperature than its original constituents and therefore requires around 40% less energy to create the molten glass that forms the containers?
The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the British soft drinks industry are currently developing a roadmap to help the sector reduce its environmental impact. This is exactly the kind of collaboration between government and business that the glass industry should welcome, to ensure that the future of glass is green.
Tom Wood is the managing director of glass packaging specialist Rawlings. David Balhuizen is the head of operations at ethical mineral water company Belu.
Read the full article on Guardian Professional.