Green Glass?

Feb. 24, 2020

Glass has a lot of positives as a packaging material, but recyclability isn’t really one.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal talks about how glass is making a comeback as a packaging material, or trying to. The article predicated this as a matter of how environmentally friendly glass is, or can be made, or at least made to seem.

Lotsa luck.

I started my trade career lo these many years ago on a packaging magazine. In that job, I periodically saw a lot of efforts to greenwash this or that packaging material, usually by claiming it was easy to recycle. (The most ludicrous was a PR blitz for expanded polystyrene, popularly if not quite accurately known as Styrofoam. Sorry, guys, that was never gonna happen.)

Glass recycling has a long-established but shaky history. Old glass is routinely used to make new; crushed into what the industry calls “cullet,” it saves on raw materials like silica sand and soda ash – when it’s available.

That’s the rub. When it comes to recycling, glass runs into the same problem as most packaging material: Americans don’t like to sort their garbage. “Single-stream” recycling, in which plastic, paper and glass get tossed together (along with, all too often, completely inappropriate material like used tissues or coffee grounds) is the norm. The problem, of course, is that these single streams often fail to yield usable material.

As a result, only about one-third of glass American glass containers get recycled, compared with about three-quarters in Europe, where consumer sorting of recycled materials is routine. Glass has other, unique problems: Its fragility makes it hard to handle, and its weight requires more fuel to move around.

The only way to make glass packaging truly green is to reuse it. I’m old enough to remember when this was done routinely, with returnable, refillable soda bottles. But once single-use plastic hit the market, the store-to-bottler shipping infrastructure withered away, and I’m not sure anything less than a rigidly imposed-from-above solution would ever bring it back.

Let’s face it: Once glass was no longer the only game in town for bottles and jars, plastic ate its lunch. Only about 1% of U.S. carbonated soft drinks are packaged in glass, compared with almost 58% in 1975.

As a packaging material, glass has too many negatives: It’s expensive, heavy and fragile. The president of a company that bottles second- and third-line distilled liquor – the kind you get when you tell the bartender you don’t care what goes in your vodka tonic – told me that if he could get away with it, there would never be another glass bottle in his plant. The only reason he still used them, he told me, is because many of his trade customers (i.e., bars) insisted on them.

That, in my opinion, is the biggest advantage of glass as a packaging material: It looks good. Good enough to make even third-rate liquor seem appealing. This quality cachet, plus its top-notch barrier properties, will make it far more appealing than trying to spin it as easily recyclable.