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Glass vs. Plastic vs. Aluminum Packaging

Glass vs. Plastic vs. Aluminum Packaging

Why plastic packaging is a no-go, and why we choose glass over aluminum. 

Downfalls of Plastic Packaging

If you haven’t already, check out our post on The Plastic Pollution Crisis to get an in-depth breakdown of how harmful plastic packaging is to the earth. For us, moving away from plastic was a no brainer.

Plastic Impact on the Environment

When comparing the three, plastic is the material that should be eliminated first. Why is it not you ask? – Cost. Plastic is by far the cheapest material to produce and transport. Here a few quick facts on why exactly plastic is so bad for the environment.

  • Plastic is an oil-based compound, which emits abundant amounts of greenhouse gases during initial production.
  • Most plastics are infused with harmful additives that extend shelf life – these are released into the environment during production, incineration, and the multi decade decomposition cycle. Pollution from petrochemical facilities can contribute to health problems in neighboring communities including asthma, lung cancer, neurological damage, vomiting, diarrhea, and cardiovascular diseases.1
  • In comparison to glass, which can be recycled over and over without quality loss, plastic cannot be recycled indefinity – only about 2% of plastic is recycled into a similar use.
  • In 2015, plastic production emissions release the equivalent of 45 million passenger vehicles in greenhouses gases.
  • Only about 40% of plastic is recycled, the rest of it winding up in our oceans, massive unsustainable landfills, or in air pollution through incineration. 

What is Plastic Leaching, and just how dangerous can it be?

Plastic doesn’t just release harmful chemicals during production and consumption. In many cases, especially in that of plastic in a car during a hot summer day, plastic polymers and chemicals in packaging can also diffuse/migrate into the food or sanitizer that they hold. This phenomenon is call “leaching”. Studies have shown these migrations hold traces of monomers, oligomers, stabilizers, plasticizers, lubricants, and other reactive ingredients. These substances can potentially be toxic, and are absorbed by hands during application, similar to how water left inside a car in a plastic bottle is drank.

The head-to-head comparison of Glass and Aluminum packaging.

It’s obvious that plastic isn’t the move – but how does a company choose between glass and aluminum? Our decision came down to three main factors – environmental impact of production, transportation, and recyclability.

Transportation Costs and Energy

It’s no secret that glass is heavy, and fragile. Aluminum is generally lighter and can be packed together more tightly, making it much cheaper to transport. For this reason, aluminum can be a much more lucrative option when it comes to transportation. It is estimated that transportation of glass can potentially emit up to 20% more greenhouse gases than transporting aluminum.2 With that said, glass bottles have reduced in weight by 40% in the last 30 years, making the option more and more viable from a transportation cost and energy standpoint as time goes on. 5 

Recyclability of glass and aluminum

Both glass and aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. This is another category in which aluminum and glass are very much so neck-and-neck on the surface. Furthermore, aluminum is typically recycled about 20% more than glass is.2

However, recycling aluminum poses a variety of new issues for the environment.

“Salt Cake”

To recycle aluminum, it must be melted down to separate pure metal from impurities. “For every ton of aluminum that is melted, 200 to 500 kg of ‘salt cake’ is produced” – a highly toxic substance to living organic organisms containing aluminum oxides, carbides, nitrides, sulphides, and phosphides.3 Salt cake requires intense care to be disposed of properly. Pollution from runoff and improper disposal pose major risks to the ecosystem.

Fossil Fuels and Air Pollution

Aluminum recycling requires heavy machinery and processes which can cause extensive air pollution. The burning of coal, petroleum and gasoline to melt aluminum releases nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, both which can cause acid rain and air pollution known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory issues to neighboring communities.3

Furthermore, the actual aluminum releases furans, dioxides, and hydrogen chloride during melting.3 Furans are widely known as one of the worst air pollutants, causing skin disorders, liver issues, immune system impairment, certain types of cancers, and nervous system damage4 

Glass has the best recycle value

Recycling glass requires by far the least amount of energy of the three, with the least amount of byproduct emissions. So while aluminum is generally recycled more, glass is the cleanest. A few quick facts.

  • Energy costs drop about 2-3% for every 10% cullet used in manufacturing process.5
  • One ton of carbon dioxide is reduced for every 6 tones of recycled container glass.5 

How does producing glass vs aluminum packaging impact the earth?

In this category, glass is a clear winner. Glass is made from silica, an industrial sand and gravel. Silica is abundant and mining of it has limited environmental impact according to United States Geological2

On the other hand, new aluminum production is a fairly harmful process from mining to manufacturing. To produce aluminum, one needs bauxite – a clay mineral consisting of aluminum hydroxide, iron, titanium, sulfur, and chromium. This is a scorched-earth mining operation, meaning massive equipment must mine into the earth and terrain, spewing dust in into the atmosphere which can contain heavy metals. Mining bauxite is detrimental to the environment and can lead to water contamination, erosion, and ultimately – habitat destruction.2

Refining of Aluminum

Once mined, the raw materials for aluminum must still be refined into a usable form. There are two main environmentally damaging factors of aluminum refining – energy used, and toxic byproduct.

The first, seemingly more obvious, is the intensive energy requirements to refine aluminum. The raw material of bauxite must first be bathed in a strong base solution, sodium hydroxide, at extreme high temperatures and pressure using the Hall-Heroult process of electrolysis.6 One kilogram of aluminum requires about 13 kilowatt hours of electrical energy – to put into perspective, over 3% of the worlds entire electrical supply went to the extraction and refinement of aluminum in 2010.7

The second, silent killer – “Red Mud”. Anything that does not dissolve during the electrolysis process results in this byproduct which can hold sand, clay, titanium oxide, and even radioactive minerals such as uranium and thorium. This mud has an extremely high pH, and is strong enough to kill animal/plantlife as well as causing burns and damage to airways with fumes.6 Any time there is toxic byproduct, there is an enormous risk with the potential of improper storage and disposal through leaks and floods. A perfect example, is the devastating disaster in Devecser, Ajka, Hungary in 2010. A reservoir from an extraction facility burst, releasing the toxic sludge into a nearby town, killing 10 people and injuring over 120 from burns and respiratory damage. This caused over $647 million in damages, and dangerous levels of metals in the air and soil years from the event.8

The Bottom Line – Glass is Best

While glass can be more expensive, and slightly more difficult to ship, it is the greenest to produce and recycle. Furthermore, it has the best reuse value. This is why we choose to package in an eco-friendly glass bottle with a refill system to create a truly waste-free sanitizer. You can purchase waste-free sanitizer packs here, and refills here. #glassbottlesarebetter.


Next article The Plastic Pollution Crisis