I wanted to respond to Eliesparrow’s questions about the impacts of recycling bottles and cans with some additional information that I got from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s packaging expert and waste prevention specialist David Allaway.
Here’s what Eliesparrow said: “Sure, we can have single-servings in anything - but if the filthy, air-pollution spewing recycling trucks have to drive all over eternity every time we consume, how is that eco-friendly? And why aren’t we hearing about the recycling process? Are the plants not owned by some oil companies, and don’t they create greenhouse gas emissions as well?”
Alloway has done numerous life cycle analyses and spent a lot of time contemplating the impacts of packaging. He even sat on the steering committee for Walmart’s sustainability initiative. Here are a few key points he made on the topic of making, transporting, recycling and reusing glass and aluminum that speak to some of Elliesparrow’s questions:
- As I noted earlier, Allaway was quite clear that the environmental impacts of any product are dominated by the process of making it in the first place. “Don’t sweat collecting it, and don’t sweat transporting it,” he said. But he gave me a lot of additional information to back up his points, and I figured I might as well share:
- Mining raw minerals: Glass is made from silica, which is relatively abundant and easy to mine, he said. Aluminum is made from oxides, which create more mining impacts. Smelting aluminum requires a lot of energy – primarily electric (which can come from multiple sources including coal or natural gas). Making glass usually requires natural gas. “Neither of them is a great package from a mineral perspective,” Alloway said.
- Collection impacts: “If you compare the greenhouse gas requirements of all those trucks driving around collecting all those materials and making the fuel for the trucks verses the reductions when those materials are recycled, the savings are about 40 times higher than the collection impacts. So, don’t sweat recycling collection. It’s trivial.”
- The recycling process: “They both take much less energy to recycle than they do to make from virgin materials the first time. The process requirements to recycle either of these materials are so small that they’re trivial. Recycling 100 beer bottles requires more energy than recycling 100 aluminum cans, but making the aluminum cans requires a lot more energy.”
- Greenhouse gas savings from recycling: “Glass has the lowest greenhouse gas benefit per ton of all common recyclables. If you collect a ton of glass and send it off to be recycled, you reduce greenhouse gasses by 0.07 metric tons of carbon equivalent. By contrast, if you’re collecting aluminum and sending it off to be recycled, you reduce greenhouse gasses by 3.44 metric tons. So, sure, recycling a ton of aluminum has more greenhouse gas benefit than recycling a ton of glass, but this says nothing about what it takes to make the materials. And takes a lot more to get a ton of aluminum than glass.”
- Transportation distance: “The break-even point is where you’re using more energy to transport your recyclables than you’re saving when the market uses those recycled materials. You want to ship those materials a shorter distance than the break-even points. Glass requires more energy to transport than aluminum does, but if you transport a ton of glass by rail (a common method) to get it recycled, you can transport it 9,000 miles before the emissions from fuel use by the railroad equal the benefit of getting that glass to a recycling plant. Even though glass has lowest benefit per ton you can still ship it 9,000 miles. By comparison, you can ship aluminum 450,000 miles by rail before you hit the break-even point. Again, the point is, don’t sweat collecting it, and don’t sweat transporting it.”
- Benefits depend on what happens to recycled material: “Some glass recycled in Oregon goes into road base to make aggregate, which has very little environmental benefit.”
- The benefits of reusing a glass: DEQ did a life cycle analysis of drinking water that found the impacts of drinking water from the tap in a reusable glass had a “substantially” smaller environmental impact than drinking from 5-gallon water containers or plastic bottles – even if you recycle the plastic. Allaway said that study supports the conclusion that drinking beer from the tap out of kegs, which are reused and relatively long-lasting, is environmentally preferable to drinking out of recyclable containers. A reusable glass bottle, however, might be akin to the reusable glass. The DEQ study found the biggest factor affecting the impact of the reusable glass is how often you wash it in the dishwasher.
- Don’t forget the contents: “We’re seeing more and more evidence that products are more impactful than packaging. The public likes to focus on the packaging issue because packaging is very visible as litter and products typically aren’t. Packaging is the thing you bring back from the store that you didn’t actually want. So psychologically those two factors combine to generate a lot of angst, anxiety and debates around packaging. If you were to do a life cycle analysis of beer, it’s quite possible the beer is more impactful than the packaging. How the beer is made, how the hops are grown might be more significant than the packaging.” (See Sightline’s analysis of the impact of paper vs plastic grocery bags, he suggested. The biggest impact by far comes from the groceries you put in them.)