Since glass bottles first competed with pitchers and wineskins, beverage producers have had to assess conflicting requirements when choosing how to package their products for the consumer. In some market areas image is all, while in others cost is far more significant.
But all decisions – particularly those that may involve long-term investment choices – must be made against the background of increasingly strict EC rules on packaging waste and safety issues.
The market for beverage containers is divided between glass, steel, aluminium and plastics, of which polyethylene tere-phthalate (PET) is the most widely used. Fruit juices and milk may also be packed in flexible multilayer cartons. Each of these container types has a different profile of raw material and energy use, transport costs and ease of recycling.
Over the years, changes in production technology, patterns of consumption, the mix of container sizes, transport procedures and recycling have all had significant impacts. Thus, in any real-world situation, resource efficiency cannot be reduced to a single simple figure.
- Glass. While glass containers are the heaviest and most bulky option, leading to increased transport costs, these are readily recycled. Andrew Hartley, director of strategy and communications for packaging at the trade federation British Glass, noted that, ‘Glass is 100 per cent recyclable without any loss in quality; glass containers made with high levels of recycled glass are as pure and clear as ones made solely from virgin raw materials.' In 2003, the average glass jar or bottle produced in the UK contained 38 per cent recycled glass, and significant amounts of reclaimed glass were exported to overseas bottle producers or used in other industrial applications. Consumers generally share the industry's own perception of glass as a ‘green' container material.
- Steel and aluminium. Cans clearly score over glass in terms of weight and volume, but the UK's Carbon Trust considers that the aluminium industry's energy demands are so intensive that it is likely to be hit hard by emissions trading. Even without the future impact of emissions trading, power costs account for more than 35 per cent of the total production costs for aluminium. The energy required to recycle aluminium is less. Aluminium also provides high efficiency in transport and handling.
- PET. PET has made such inroads into the carbonated or soft drinks market that some observers believe it has reached saturation point. The market for higher-quality beers is proving harder to crack, partly because the requirements for gas barrier properties are higher, and containers must be coated, produced in multilayer form or with special oxygen-scavenging resins.
- Pouches and boxes. Fruit juices and dairy products are often packed in other plastics where environmental impacts and resource demands are broadly similar to PET. Multilayer soft ‘boxes' or pouches may also be used. These provide high packing densities and therefore efficient transport. However, the range of products that can be packaged in this way is restricted, and because these are composites, they are difficult or impossible to recycle efficiently.
The role of recycling in determining the resource efficiency of packaging is critical. EU member states have in general until 31 December 2008 to meet overall targets of 60 per cent recovery and 55 per cent recycling of packaging waste.
Current recycling rates differ widely between countries, ranging from above 90 per cent for steel in Belgium down to 28 per cent in Portugal. While the averaged recycling figures for most individual materials are above 50 per cent, plastics are far lower at around 15 per cent.
A system of mandatory deposits and requirements to take back containers in Germany has proved far from popular. Worse, the system is influencing the market and making it hard for overseas producers to export to the country.
Roland Batier, regulatory affairs manager for the European steel packaging association Apeal, explains, ‘According to the Packaging Ordinance, a retailer must accept back all packages that are in the same materials as those he sells. Initially, there was no system in place to reimburse those who had to pay out more than they had received.'
To minimise labour and avoid having to accept excess returns, supermarkets reduced the range of products they offer in non-refillable containers. The deposit system has reduced the market share of metal cans by 90 per cent, because there are essentially only two types of metal can in use, but retailers can readily have plastic bottles produced to their own individual designs.
Under the Packaging Ordinance, PET is regarded as 'ecologically unfavourable', but Petcore argues that the assumptions made in the German LCA were biased. Its own study concludes that the environmental efficiency of PET as a container material (with recycling via house-hold kerbside collection) is comparable to that of refillable glass containers.
Costs and benefits
Commenting on the differences between glass and plastic, Gary Parker, head of environment and waste at Pira, observes, ‘It's been suggested that a lorry on the road with drinks in glass bottles is carrying 60 per cent of drinks and 40 per cent glass. With plastics, the figures are 93 per cent and 7 per cent.'
That dramatic headline difference is not the whole story. Parker adds, ‘But people don't think about the things they can't see. A lot of trucking goes on, moving waste to recycling depots, shredding it then moving it to reprocessors. As materials are hard to compare, I think the Packaging Essential Requirements regulations are right in just requiring you to minimise use of your current materials.'
Market surveys have tended to reveal almost as much about the interests of those carrying out the survey as they have about consumer attitudes, with a survey organised by the glass industry reporting that consumers preferred glass, associating it with quality, while one conducted on behalf of canmakers concluded that consumers prefer the compact form and cool touch of metal cans for carbonated drinks.
In practice, the UK's Packaging Federation notes that in the soft drinks market plastic bottles have gained market share at the expense of cartons, cans, pouches and glass bottles.
A different profile can be expected in the alcoholic drinks market, which appeals to an older age range. Premium wines and spirits have always tended to be packed in distinctive bottle designs, and while the high filling speeds for beers restricts this approach, there is nevertheless a move towards glass, according to Parker: ‘A can of beer is probably an efficient package, but all the brewers I have spoken to say the move is definitely towards premium beers in more luxurious packages.'
PET can be considered the most efficient beverage packaging material in terms of its raw material use, cost of distribution and associated energy costs. However, further downweighting would show the greatest benefits for glass. An increase in recycling rates would move the energy balance in favour of aluminium.
Again, the current rise in the use of PET may saturate the most economically favourable routes for its recycling, while the use of bottles with improved barrier properties will increase its cost of manufacture significantly.
Ironically, the products least susceptible to the onward march of PET are wines and beers in glass bottles. These are just the products most likely to undergo long journeys to market, and demand for them is rising. Resource efficiency is important, but it is not always the most important consideration in a consumer market.