So why glass packaging over plastic? For one, glass is environmentally friendly, has a higher perceived product quality by end consumers, and is simpler to recycle than plastic. Although the survey found that younger consumers use fewer glass-packaged products than their older counterparts, these consumers consider glass a “trendier” packaging material than others.
In the U.S., we see this tendency reflected in brands like Honest Tea, which started in glass before moving to plastic. However, younger consumers were also more likely to consider price to be a barrier to buying products with glass consumer packaging, while one third stated that it is “more expensive” to buy glass packaged products.
Plastics and the Environment
Yet a recent Packaging Europe article found that media and political attention on “marine littering” has not only put plastics, but all packaging materials under the spotlight. Consumers are more and more attentive to the way products are packed too, which can drive product choice. The Friends of Glass research reveals that 73% of Europeans rate glass as the most ocean-friendly packaging, 78% rank it among the top packaging choices when buying food and beverage products, and 50% of consumers say they use more glass than they did three years ago.
The Making of Glass
Firstly, there are thousands of different plastics, each with their own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it near impossible to sort and process the trillions of pieces of plastics. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells (which are a different kind of PET#1 material), and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles. This is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.
Similarly, high-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling. Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic that cannot be recycled together, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S. You can read more in the Atlantic article “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work.”
Implementing a glass recycling process could replace up to 95% of first-use materials with second-use. Even though the amount of recycled material has quadrupled in the past 40 years, the EPA calculates that recycled glass only accounts for a 31% share. In these conditions, second-use products make up 40% of beer and non-alcoholic beverage bottles, 40% of wine and alcoholic beverage bottles, and 15% of food and other glass bottles. In 2018, there was a total of 12.3 million tons of waste glass, but only 3 million was recycled and the amount of wasted glass totaled 7.6 million.
First, it would take a committed effort to increase glass recycling in the U.S. It would require a coalition of brands to sponsor the effort. Second, it would be beneficial to learn from European best practices. Glass recycling is literally built into the way hotels, restaurants, delis, grocery, and retail operate, and the recycling and reuse of glass is part of the market DNA.
Finally, it’s necessary to continue looking for new packaging options to move away from plastic.
There is something unique about the glass bottle beverage. It feels substantial — special. And somehow tastes just a bit better, or different, than the same drink in plastic or aluminum. Or maybe that’s just the mind at work.
Justin Honaman is the head, worldwide retail and consumer goods go-to-market at Amazon Web Services and a member of the CGT/RIS Executive Council. AWS specializes in on-demand cloud computing platforms and APIs.