I went looking for some simple answers and have ended up down a rabbit hole!
The question was, when given a choice of packaging in my food shop should I choose a glass container, metal tin/can, Tetra Pak, cardboard or a plastic container. Unfortunately it is not that simple.
In order to calculate how environmentally friendly a type of packaging is you not only have to consider the raw materials that it uses, but also the energy and carbon emissions needed to make and distribute it as well as how efficiently and effectively it can be recycled.
All types of packaging has its own pros and cons and so to some extent it depends on whether your main concern is the depletion of natural resources, damage to the environment, energy useage, emissions, or the amount of waste we are failing to dispose of properly. Obviously I am greatly concerned about all of these issues and so any packaging I choose is going to be some sort of compromise.
My first priority therefore is to focus my efforts on actually reducing the amount of packaging that I consume. My local refill shops luckily provide me with an ever expanding opportunity to do this and if I then add this to the using of my re-useable produce bags at my local fruit and veg shop, I can actually complete quite a lot of my food shopping packaging free. However, even then, there are still a few products that I do still actively choose to buy packaged, such as cucumbers, as for me the gains in extending the life of the cucumber (up to five times as long) significantly reduces the amount of food wastage (not just in my house but for the whole cucumber supply chain) and so I think that far outweighs the negatives of the plastic covering.
For the rest of my food shop products, I have decided that the best way forward is to divide my packaging choices to conquer this conundrum. Glass bottles/jars, steel tins and recycled aluminium cans will be my preferred packaging choices. Mainly because they are easily and endlessly recyclable into high value materials, which means that there is a great demand (and therefore industry effort) for them to actually be recycled.
Unfortunately, my local council uses our recycled glass to make/repair roads instead of new glass containers and so it is not really an ideal option as it is not helping to reduce the amount of new glass needing to be made. However, I am hoping that they have made a calculated decision that this is the best way to use crushed glass for our area.
I do however still think that glass is a good option as although it is heavier than metal and hence not as good for its transportation impact, the raw materials and production is far less damaging to the environment than the raw materials and manufacturing processes of steel, tin and especially aluminium which is hugely destructive. However, if you are able to find 100% recycled aluminium cans this could still make it a better option than glass bottles!
The recyclability of tins does also still make them a good option however, I have just discovered that many tins have a BPA plastic lining that can pose some health concerns so I am now looking for some non-BPA tins! Did I mention I keep finding new tunnels down this rabbit hole?!
Tetra Paks will be my next (surprising) choice, as although I was initially concerned about this type of packaging, apparently the materials used CAN be sourced from mostly renewable sources and they can be easily and relatively effectively recycled (although not endlessly). The Tetra Paks of oatmilk from Oatly apparently have a 60-70% less carbon impact than that of glass or PET plastic bottles. Oatly also believe that “the largest environmental impact of the packaging lies in what it is made out of rather than if or how it is recycled”. They even claim that their oatmilk imported from Sweden in Tetra Paks has less environmental impact than a local cow’s milk (although it doesn’t state in what type of packaging.) My biggest concern with this type of packaging though is that currently only 35% of Tetra Paks get recycled in the UK. So my additional action on this point is to continue to keep asking my local council when we will be able to include them in our kerbside collections (like some of our neighbouring counties do), as relying on the public to use local collection points is clearly not working well enough.
Card/paper packaging is a material that I feel a bit split over. Initially it seems like it is a good packaging choice however it not only has a huge carbon footprint to produce but it is also often unable to be recycled due to it being wet or contaminated with food. So for me I am going to be trying to reduce my useage of this type of packaging. The only silver lining perhaps is that if I do put soiled card or wet paper in the general waste my local council doesn’t send anything to landfill and so it will at least get incinerated and converted into energy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, plastic packaging is now my last resort. Yes, it does have many advantages but the fossil fuels it uses, the huge carbon impact its manufacturing process has and the fact that most plastic ends up being downcycled into lower grade materials and eventually just break down into smaller and smaller particles that pollute our soils, air and seas tips the balance for me. Yes, a small proportion of PET plastic currently makes it into a closed loop recycling process however overall its environmental impact is not great. Incineration is growing in popularity for disposing of plastics however I am not 100% convinced that this can be entirely safe, plus it is again not a closed loop system as it will still create a need for more plastic to be made.
Many companies are currently trying very hard to help solve this packaging problem and some say it is in the form of bio-plastics. However, unfortunately many of these products are not viewed a scalable option as in the future we will need our fertile soils more to grow food to eat rather than to make bio-plastic. Plus in the meantime although they are supposedly compostable or biodegradeable, most of the UK’s waste facilities aren’t able to dispose of it in the right way and so just because it can be a more environmentally friendly material doesn’t mean that it actually is.
What we really need is a fully circular (closed loop) system where materials get reused/recycled endlessly. We cannot keep plundering our natural resources and dumping/burning our waste. The government, manufacturers, consumers and recyclers all need to take their share of responsibility to create a new system that is not only efficient and effective but also economically viable.
As a consumer I will therefore be trying to support the development of these type of systems by choosing the right products from the right companies and I will continue to contact the manufacturers, supermarkets and the government to show them that there is a demand for more sustainable packaging options and robust recycling systems. I will also be taking more personal responsibility for the amount of waste that we (as a family) produce and ensure that I am giving it the best chance of being reused or recycled.
I am eagerly awaiting the launch of the LOOP initiative that Tesco was apparently going to be trialling from mid-March, however I am presuming that it has been delayed due to the current lockdown. But it does look like a great system that I hope they will find a way to launch very soon.
So as you can see, I am still very much down the rabbit hole, but the good news is that there are at least a lot of other rabbits down here too, so hopefully together we can dig a new way out of this mess.