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YOUR SHOUT – David Workman, Director General, British Glass

The glass divide: "No other packaging material can currently boast such a high level of recycled content" – David Workman, Director General, British Glass

I am becoming increasingly concerned about emotionally charged, misleading and inaccurate media reports justifying the introduction by some retailers of alternative packaging formats to glass.  Some seem to have interpreted their Courtaulds Commitment obligation as a simple weight reduction exercise, in which case the obvious target is glass. Until now glass has been one of the materials to have escaped consumer and environmental group criticism over excessive packaging – surely the real target for action.

I believe that it is worth reiterating why it is that we believe glass, although heavy compared to other materials, is actually the most sustainable form of packaging available to brand owners and retailers for both food and drink products. Where we have to use virgin raw materials they are sourced locally, are cheap and plentiful.  Supplies of sand and limestone will last for thousands of years unlike the basic raw material used to produce most other forms of packaging. 

Glass is virtually inert. It will keep any product packed into it in the pristine state which the filler intended. It does not contain phthalates or Bisphenol A or any potential hormone disruptor. It offers long shelf life as high levels of vacuum and carbonisation can be maintained over a long period of time, unaffected by temperature or light. In most applications it is highly resealable. It is a robust material able to be pasteurised, sterilised or microwaved. Chemical coatings or additional oxygen stabilisers do not have to be applied to it in order to improve barrier properties.

Currently over 50% of the UK glass container waste stream is recycled – and genuinely so.  It is not down-cycled or shipped off to far flung parts of the globe or deliberately incinerated.

Over 750,000 tonnes of the 1.2 million tonnes recovered each year goes directly into the manufacture of new containers – a process that can go on indefinitely without loss of product integrity or quality. That which cannot be used in the UK glass container industry is either exported to other glass manufacturers in Europe or is used as a base raw material in applications such as the manufacture of fibreglass insulation products. 

Glass is a mono layer material and therefore does not need to be separated prior to recycling.  With the right infrastructure in place glass can reach recycling rates in excess of 90%. This has already been achieved in countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Holland.

Even if it does reach landfill its inert nature means that it will not give off harmful greenhouse gases like methane – nor will it have any detrimental effect on marine life if it is discarded on our coasts or at sea.

Recycling rates declared by the various different materials need to be verified to show exactly what is meant by the rather meaningless terms “recyclable” or “easily disposed of”. Glass has no fears about such a verification process.

Recycled content
We estimate that the recycled content of UK produced glass is over 50% but this averaging process includes significant volumes of cosmetic and spirit bottles, where recycled contents are lower. These bottles are filled for export and do not enter the UK retail stream.  We estimate that the glass going through our supermarkets has a recycled content level which could be as high as 70%, given the amount of product which is imported from countries such as Germany, Holland, Italy and France.

No other packaging material can currently boast such a high level of recycled content and in many cases there is no prospect that they will be able to do so.

Consumer preference
Glass looks good, feels good and is associated with quality products. Numerous surveys from across Europe show it to be the consumers preferred choice of packaging. 

The retail sector proudly promotes the idea that it reflects consumer demand. If this is genuinely the case then the supermarkets need to package more of their food and drink products in glass – not less.

Glass has never featured in the discussion on “excess packaging”, although it does have the potential to reduce its weight further. We are working closely with WRAP in order to facilitate projects involving the glass industry, brand owners and the retail sector, aimed at rolling out a programme of light weighting which, over the next few years, could see average bottle weights drop by as much as one third. This, combined with an increasing recycling rate, will have a very significant and  beneficial effect on energy consumption and CO reduction.

It is the brand owners and retailers who specify weight. In many cases they choose to promote their products in containers which are heavier than they need be.

Sustainable packaging
If we are to enter a phase where competing materials are to be judged on their impacts on health, the environment and society, then let us have an informed debate based on full and exhaustive impact assessments – not on half baked, limited life cycle assessments or simplistic calculations of weight.

As a matter of interest, recital eight of the EU Directive 2004/12/EC, on packaging and packaging waste, specifically states that “discrimination against materials on the basis of their weight should be avoided”. This was included to discourage the type of activity that we are currently witnessing.

© db November 2007

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