Simple questions like: Glass or Plastic?

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Simple QuestionsSimple questions, simple answers. Neat, very neat, very quick.

A simple question such as: When buying a soft drink, is it better to buy one contained in a glass bottle or one in plastic?

Maybe your first thought is the aesthetic. Glass is more tactile, perhaps it will stay cooler for longer, even represents an iconic shape that hasn’t really changed in almost 100 years.

Perhaps you consider portability and impact resistance. On the run, it’d be a disaster if you dropped the glass bottle, plastic is much safer, lighter and less likely to break.

Some may consider the environmental friendliness and jump to a choice to do the right thing. But what is the right thing? Both are recyclable. Hmm. Simple answers start to go off track here and that’s a good thing.

As an individual you’ve already considered all these thoughts in front of the fridge, probably in less than a second. Maybe even not at all. However, In the time it takes to consume that drink, you’ll be better informed about what the sustainable choices are.

Refillable Glass Bottles, Kerala INDIA
Refillable bottles. Kerala, India

Before some people’s time there was an approach to soft drink bottling that was based upon reusable glass bottles. In this period long ago (actually still current in some countries), a soft drink was purchased, the drink drunk, the bottle returned to base through a collection service and the bottle was then refilled to be dispatched to a retail store to be sold again. Picture loads and loads of drink crates traversing the lands back and forth with the same bottles. Those bottles would have been used many times before being taken out of service.

Somewhere along the way recycling took over and glass bottles became single-use. Once the fancy sugary liquid had been consumed, the bottle ‘hopefully’ got tossed in the bin by the lucky and now quenched purchaser to be recycled. Transported back to a recycling centre it was broken down into its original materials and ‘re-built’ as a bottle or something else. Progress, perhaps.

Organisations sensed that there was a better (and cheaper) way. A recyclable material was good. A lighter recyclable material would be better, yep, you guessed it, plastic. Same scenario, only lighter.

So here we are today, plastic recyclable bottles being the mainstay of refreshments in bottles. Simple and in terms of cost to the consumer, cheaper. Even now a glass bottle of the same drink will cost more than its plastic equivalent. Hit the service station or milk bar (if they still exist) on the way home and have a look.

It gets worse. Sorry, not worse, it actually gets more interesting now.

Helicopter View of Melbourne
Helicopter view. Melbourne, Australia

Take a helicopter up to the clouds and now look at all the people purchasing bottled flavoured liquid sugar. There’s lots of them and lots of empty bottles. Look at all the trucks going back and forwards from delivery centres, production plants, recycling centres and stores carrying cartons of drinks and empty bottles. Now observe from where the water is sourced to produce all these drinks and how that arrives at the plant.

You’re starting to see the outline of a very large soft drink bottle footprint. It’s a systems view of what’s behind the action of reaching into the fridge to grab a bottle.

Without going into gory detail, clearly there’s a diverse range of component parts that work together to enable you to take the bottle. There’s sourced water, fuel for transport, energy for production, land for buildings, machinery to do stuff and people to move things around. And pollution from some. In consideration of all this ‘stuff’, which bottle, glass or plastic, is the cheapest cost in terms of economic production, social impact and environmental consequences, ie the smallest carbon footprint?

There is an answer. But before the simplicity and intellectual quenching takes place, consider another question: what if you had to choose between a multi-use refillable glass bottle and a recyclable PET plastic one? Now that’s a complex query that has been better tackled here. Okay, to the final gulp… For some it will be no surprise that a PET plastic bottle has the smaller carbon footprint compared to glass.

What will you choose next time? Maybe you’ll refill that bottle of water instead of buying another one when it’s discovered that it takes around 3 litres of water to produce a 1 litre PET bottle. Yep, every time you buy one litre, it’s actually costing far more.

Perhaps the next simple question to tackle could be which choice of bicycle: aluminium, steel or carbon fibre?

Quenching ANZA Mavericks, Tour of Friendship 2011
Quenching. Anza Mavericks, Tour of Friendship, Thailand

For more thirst quenching information:
G Magazine On-line – Disposable Drink Bottles: Plastic v glass v aluminium
Inform Inc – Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles

Bicycle Footprint teasers:
Bike Radar – The not so green bike – carbon fibre’s carbon footprint
The Guardian – The bike manufacturer that aims to be greener than the rest

Please take a moment to share.

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