Is Glass Really Eco-Friendly?

A pile of used glass containers to be recycled

Glass packaging has been making quite a comeback recently and in my quest to go greener this year I wondered if glass was really an eco-friendly choice. So I did a little research.

As it turns out Glass is an eco-friendly choice because 1) It’s made from silica sand, limestone, and soda ash (and often recycled glass). 2) When it breaks down it doesn’t release harmful chemicals. 3) Over its lifetime it has a smaller carbon footprint than aluminum or plastic.

Glass definitely wins out over plastic as far as being “greener” when it comes to packaging but if you are trying to be eco-friendly and really help the planet like I am, then there are a few more things you need to know about choosing glass including some drawbacks you’ll want to consider.

What Makes Glass Eco-Friendly?

There are three main qualities of glass that make it a good green living choice.

First, rather than being made from resources like crude oil and natural gas and the byproducts of refining those resources (which are major components of plastic products), glass is made from ingredients like silica sand, limestone, and soda ash.

You’re probably familiar with what silica sand and limestone are, but you might not know what soda ash is. I didn’t! Soda ash is a chemical that is refined from a mineral called trona. Soda ash isn’t the same as baking soda, in case you were wondering. But I won’t go into a chemistry lesson here. (You’re welcome!)

It’s important to know that recycled glass is also a large part of the material that they use to make new glass products. We’ll get more into the details of recycling glass in a minute. But it’s awesome to realize that recycled glass is a major component of new glass products. Because that makes it an even “greener” packaging choice. Why?

Well, when you use recycled glass to make new glass the used or waste glass, known as cullets, actually melt at a lower temperature during the manufacturing process. So it doesn’t take as much energy to heat the materials you’re using to make the new glass to the right temperature to give you that brand new bottle. BONUS!

80% of the glass bottles that are recovered from recycling are made into new bottles. That’s a lot of energy saved.

“Glass produced from recycled glass reduces related air pollution by 20% and related water pollution by 50%.”

The second thing that makes glass eco-friendly is that because glass isn’t made with a bunch of nasty chemicals when it breaks down it doesn’t turn into anything bad.

This is not true for plastic which can break down into a lot of bad stuff, like BPA and PS oligomer which are of serious concern because they can disrupt the body’s normal hormonal process and impact reproduction in humans and animals. If you want to know more about that process you can read about it here on the American Chemical Society website.

Plus, when plastics break down they turn into microplastics. These are tiny pieces of plastic less than .5 mm in length (or if you are more comfortable with inches less than .2 inches).

We’ve got a lot of microplastics ending up in our oceans and waterways and this is a problem because the microplastics can be mistaken for food by fish and birds and other aquatic life and the microplastics end up in those critters and eventually in us. It’s obviously NOT great to be ingesting crude oil-based products for us or the fish!

So with glass, you don’t get any of that and that helps make glass a more environmentally-friendly choice.

5 Empty Glass Coke Bottles

The third important thing that helps make glass eco-friendly is that glass has a relatively small carbon footprint in comparison to plastic or even aluminum. What does that mean?

Carbon footprint refers to how much “carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds are emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels.” Oxford Dictionaries

So when you consider the “lifetime” of an item of glass, say a glass beer bottle, you find it emits less carbon dioxide from the mining of its raw materials, the transportation of them, the manufacturing of the glass product, the delivery to the store, etc. than other packaging choices like plastic or even aluminum.

So yayyy for glass! A smaller carbon footprint is definitely better for the environment and more eco-friendly.

A couple of other advantages that glass has:

  • It’s easily cleaned.
  • It doesn’t hold odors or stain like plastic can.
  • It’s easily sterilized in boiling water.
  • It won’t melt in the microwave or dishwasher.
  • Glass is GRAS! GRAS stands for: Generally Recognized As Safe This is a designation from the US FDA. You can read a quick clarification of that here on the O.Berk Packaging website. It is probably no surprise to you that glass is food safe. With all of the information in the news about the possible BPAs in plastic and the importance of avoiding them it’s not surprising that glass is making a comeback.

But Glass isn’t Perfect

Even though glass is a way better choice for packaging than say, plastic, there are some drawbacks that it’s important to be aware of.

  • Resource use. Despite not being made of petroleum products, glass does still use up our natural resources which are not infinite.
  • Limestone mining can cause noise pollution, contaminate water supplies, and destroy animal habitat.
  • Sand running is out. Believe it or not, we don’t have unlimited supplies of sand. Demand for glass could outpace our supplies of the ingredients we need to make it. Only certain types of sand can be used to make glass that is most commonly used in packaging. Dredging rivers to get the right kind of sand can disrupt the environment and the wildlife that lives there.
  • Heavy to transport. Glass is a lot heavier than plastic or aluminum and so it costs a bit more to get it to bottling plants, grocery stores, etc.
  • Glass can break. This means it can’t be packed as tightly and transported as easily as non-breakable materials can. Plus, even in the home environment, especially when you have little ones, the possibility of glass breaking might be of concern.
  • Glass takes a REALLY long time to decompose. Glass is one of the longest-lasting manmade materials. It can take a million years to decompose according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

The good news is that most of these drawbacks can be solved by REUSING or RECYCLING!

Whenever Possible – Reuse First!

Even though glass is 100% recyclable, if at all possible reuse glass before throwing it into the recycle bin. It still takes energy to haul away used glass and make it into cullets to make new bottles.

Old glass jars and bottles in a display

To get ideas for reusing your glass bottles and jars and make glass an even more eco-friendly choice just do a quick search on Pinterest. They have tons of craft ideas that take used glass items and “upcycle” them into fun and useful accessories for your home and office.

If you’ve used all your upcycling ideas and still have wine or beer bottles that need to be recycled (which will eventually happen!) here are some things you should know.

Fast Facts about Recycling Glass

First of all, I’m sorry to say it, but the U.S. kind of sucks at glass recycling. Glass recycling rates in the US are only about 26.6% per EPA statistics from 2017. In comparison, the European Union recycles about 74% of its glass. That statistic is from the European Container Glass Federation.

Our low levels of glass recycling are really a shame because glass can be reused over and over again. You can melt it down time after time and make it into new glass items and it NEVER decreases in quality. Which is pretty amazing.

So the more glass we can recycle:

  • the fewer new resources we have to put into making glass,
  • the more energy we save, and,
  • the smaller our carbon footprint is.

Recycled glass can be substituted for 95% of the materials you need when making new glass. So you can see how that would reduce the need to mine more limestone and trona (for soda ash) and disrupt ecosystems by having to dredge up more sand.

… in Europe, “recycling is the cultural and social norm,” Nordmeyer says. Europeans have been recycling for many years, and children there are educated about it at school and at home starting at a young age. “In the US, we tend to teach to the test, and recycling isn’t on the test,” he says. “But it should be.”

James V. Nordmeyer, is the VP of global sustainability
at Owens-Illinois
Excerpted from the article Why Glass Recycling in the US is broken

Important Info about Recycling Glass & How We Can Make it Work Better

Why is the EU so much more successful when it comes to recycling glass than the U.S.? We’ve talked about lack of education about recycling in comparison to the EU, but David Rue brings up an additional key point.

According to David Rue, an engineer at the Gas Technology Institute “the recycling rate discrepancies between the US and other countries result mainly from differences in government policy and consumer education and habits.”

An example of a government policy that can work is offering a deposit on glass bottles. Some states actually give you money back when you recycle your glass bottles and these programs work really well. According to the Container Recycling Institute, states that offer a deposit on glass containers see a rate of 64% of recycling these containers while states that don’t offer a deposit only see a recycling rate of about 24%.

As consumers here in the U.S. we just haven’t been as well educated regarding recycling as some other countries with higher recycling rates. It isn’t as ingrained in us to recycle. But the great news is that that’s something we as parents and community members can work to change.

The EPA offers some great resources to encourage recycling. You can check out what they have to offer here on their website.

An assortment of clear and colored glass bottles and jars.

Glass is Eco-Friendly

From what it’s made of to its carbon footprint glass is a fairly “green” choice when it comes to packaging.

Having said that, remember, that to make glass as environmentally friendly and green as possible it’s important to use it to its fullest extent.

Reuse whatever glass you can. (It’s easily cleaned and repurposed).

Recycle the rest. If you aren’t sure what your community offers in terms of glass recycling or how best to recycle glass based on the system in place in your county or city, take a few minutes to do some research. The system gets better when you take part.

Thanks for taking the time to focus on creating a healthier planet and a greener life! The Earth needs you!

Related Questions:

What states offer a deposit on glass? Here’s a quick list. For details on each program visit the National Conference of State Legislatures website here.

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Vermont

Sources Used in this Article

EU glass recycling rate remains at 74%

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