Packages and closures for packaging

Tricky meanders of the eco-roadmaps

Lately there have been wide discussions that if we don’t save our planet, our next generations won’t be able to use its resources. Climate change is a fact and nobody can argue with it, but we still talk about the methods to care for the Earth without further harm. Average consumers receive conflicting media reports. On one hand, plastic is bad and we should eliminate it. On the other hand, replacing it with paper would cause wider logging, while the use of glass would increase CO2 emission in transport. What’s more, the production of both these materials uses up enormous amounts of water and leaves sea of sewage, which also must be taken into account.
We all agree that we should limit plastic used for shopping bags.
Truth be told, we should cut down on using disposable products all in all, regardless of the material they are made from. While paper cups or trays do not worry the ecologists, plastic plates, straws, balloons and other gadgets are being slowly withdrawn from the market.
What about the products that we can’t live without?

Glass as the panacea for all evil…

In the last years the cosmetic industry made a strong shift towards the sustainability. Despite the concerns raised by the cosmetologists, products made from natural ingredients and without preservatives make skyrocketing sales.
The packaging must be “in-tune” with the composition. For some consumers the first association is a glass vial or a jar, preferably in an amber colour. However, when we compare them with plastic airless packaging, glass comes across worse and overall it is not ecological. Nonetheless, the weight of the ready product is profitable as the packaging makes it a lot heavier than the same product put in the plastic airless packaging.
A glass jar weighs around 110 grams, while the same capacity airless only 50 grams. Why is it so important?
Average consumers might not think about how the products they use on a daily basis are transported.
Finished jars leave the glass factory and head for the production plant (closures also need to get there) where they are filled and optionally transported to a warehouse, then to a wholesaler or directly to stores, alternatively to logistic centres and then to stores. The stores don’t necessarily sell everything, so expired products need to be collected and transported to the reprocessing plants. Let’s not forget about the extra kilometres made by the consumers who go to stores to buy products. In the meantime, CO2 pours into the atmosphere. The bigger the transport, the more gasoline is used up.
The argument for the glass-made packaging is the fact that glass can be endlessly reprocessed. But then there’s the clash between the theory and practice…
Recycling of glass seems simple. However, it is not as obvious and widely practiced as we would assume. In Poland ca. 60% of glass is recycled, while 40% is irrevocably consumed by the construction industry (among others). What’s interesting, glass producers admit that only half of it is used. The rest of it is stored up or burnt (and transformed into hazardous waste).
From the glass collected from the consumer only 6-7% is refilled (mainly by the breweries which use the system of the returnable bottles). Because of the lack of the unification (which, for example, was applied in the communist Poland), glass packaging is not refilled on a wider scale, but crushed and remelted, which generates costs, as well as increased water and energy usage.
The rest of the collected material (a tad more than half of the glass from the market!) is made into the cullet which is only partly intended for new packaging – the rest of it, unfortunately, disappears in the statistics. In the case of clear glass on the market the content of the recycled glass is less than 40%, in brown glass it’s less than 50%, in green glass it’s around 80%, while in the unspecified colour it’s around 52%.

Since the glass manufacturers have access to material which can be endlessly reprocessed, why do they still use so much virgin glass? The answer is very trivial: it’s cheaper, faster and simpler to produce new glass than to collect, reprocess and clean the glass from the selective waste collection. Another argument is the fact that new glass is 100% stable and crystal clear, while the reprocessed glass doesn’t guarantee it. Glass factories can’t afford to manufacture goods of random quality because they could lose clients.

Lesser evil or stronger lobby?

Cosmetics very rarely come without packaging. There are more and more products offered in bars, but they are still sold with some type of outer packaging, and when they are sent from online shops, there are even more protective layers.
Product, which in theory is packaging- and plastic-free, generates around 200 grams of cardboard: a box or a wrap-around, then a parcel box and box fillers to secure the product in transport. In the best case scenario all of it will end up in the recycling plant. But, in order for the paper to be qualified for reprocessing, it has to be clean and dry (the earlier mentioned food trays do not fit these requirements).
The same applies to all products that need to be secured for transport with cardboard.
Recycling is the best thing we can do with it. When we reprocess it for notebooks, egg boxes or very frequently for the cheapest type of toilet paper, we give it a second life. Although the recycling process does not involve logging, it uses up hectolitres of water and pollutes the natural environment with strong whitening chemicals. Even with mechanical or biological filters, there is no possibility to avoid harming nature. One should also note that the mineral oils (MOAH and MOSH) in the printing inks may disrupt the recycling or lower the quality of the processed pulp. Let’s not forget that paper may be recycled up to seven times, so it will eventually end up on a landfill or in a combustion plant.
Beforehand, however, the trees were cut down, transported as wood, packaging, waste paper, the paper was cleaned, rinsed, discoloured…
Nobody has ever dared to say it out loud – stop paper processing!
Even though 100 kilograms of paper costs two medium-sized, oxygen-giving trees…
In Poland only 42% of paper is recycled!

Cotton. Why is it so good if it’s so bad?
Another material with great PR is cotton – to be more specific – cotton totes which proudly replace the plastic shopping bags. A nice cotton bag which screams eco-friendliness from a mile away seems to be the best solution for everyday shopping.
On the other side of the barricade we’ve got our good old plastic bags with LDPE. We all know their bad reputation, and the scary, enigmatic acronym doesn’t help.
Danish Ministry of Environment and Food (Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags, Ministry of Environment and Food of Demark, February 2018) decided to have a closer look at these two options and analyse their manufacturing processes. The analysed factors included: impact on the climate change and ozone layer, water usage, air pollution and toxicity. The results were surprising!
LDPE bag used once for shopping, then used, for example, as a rubbish bag, and finally burnt in proper conditions, is a lot less harmful than a cotton bag. The production of a cotton bag can be called sustainable only after it has been used around 7,000 times! So if we use one, particular bag every day, we can say we are eco-friendly and we helped the planet no sooner than after 19 years (sic!).
It’s worse if we use it only every second day… And it’s a total disaster if we choose the bag from organic cotton. Organic cotton is ca. 30% less durable than the regular cotton, while its production requires 30% more water. Hence, it takes even more time for organic cotton bags to become sustainable – they would have to be used ca. 10,000 times!
Even if we took it seriously and tried to use one cotton bag for years, it is very probable that it would tear before it really became eco-friendly.
Each new bag starts the new countdown to sustainability and we should bear it in mind once our old one becomes useless and it’s time to replace it.
Will the ripped cotton bag be reprocessed? No, the cotton recycling plants are virtually non-existent.

Some optimistic data
In 2018 in Europe 29.1 million tons of plastic were gathered, 42.6% of which was energetically recovered, 32.5% was recycled, and ¼ ended up in landfills. Still, these results are not the best, but in comparison to 2006 the recycling increased by 100%, energetic recovery by 77%, while the amount of landfilled plastic dropped by 44%. These numbers prove we are heading towards positive changes. Let’s not slow down!
By 2025, the aim is to recycle 50% of plastic, which, judging by the recent numbers, seems quite attainable.
The EU legislators forecast increased recycling of other fractions: we  should recycle 70% of glass and 75% of paper. From 1 January 2025 the system of the textile collection from households should be organised.

Sorting waste and reasonable shopping is the only road we, the consumers, can take. When we plan the packaging at the stage of production, we should keep in mind the guidelines of the eco-design which help us perceive the packaging as waste that should be recyclable.

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