Eco-Friendly? A Deep Dive Into How Different Types of Beverage Packaging Stack Up
Let’s cut to the chase. In the face of climate change and a hopeful shift in consumer behavior, there are a handful of beverage brands touting new packaging options that are eco-friendly.
But are they really?
There are a lot of factors to consider when weighing the environmental footprint of one type of packaging against another. It’s not just about what it’s made of. Total carbon emissions come not only from the processing and manufacturing of a material, but also from the transportation, recycling and end-of-life disposal.
At the end of the day, beverage packaging is far from perfect, even the types that market themselves as “sustainable”. Each and every option has its pros and cons. It’s also sometimes difficult to make a fair and accurate comparison due to many states having different reporting standards. For the purposes of this article, we have chosen to focus on the available information that specifically pertains to packaged beverages, as we have found many articles that make gross generalizations about the overall recycling rate of a certain material (plastic, aluminum, glass, etc) that isn’t applicable.
With that said, below you will find a table that has a combination of state and federal data specific to beverage containers by type of packaging, alongside 3rd party data on energy use, carbon footprint, and degradation.
+ Carbon emissions do not take transportation into account; a PET or RPET bottle with the same volume has a significantly lower weight than its glass equivalent, and moderately lower weight than aluminum and tetra pak, resulting in lower CO2 emissions. When you factor in transportation for a lightweight material like rPET compared to glass, the benefits are significantly higher.
* Energy values obtained from studies referenced and were converted to MJ/1.5L
** Value obtained from the assumption it takes 85% less energy to produce rPET vs PET
*** Value obtained from the assumption it emits 79% less carbon emissions to produce rPET vs PET
Federal Level Data
In a 2015-16 study on the Availability of Recycling for Beverage Containers by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, it was reported that somewhere between 55% and 92% of the population in the United States has availability to some type of recycling for the beverage container types that were studied. This includes the following types of containers:
- PET/rPET Bottles Jugs & Jars - 92%
- Aluminum Beverage Cans - 92%
- Glass Beverage Bottles - 81%
- Cartons - 55%
It is important to note that this study did not examine the recycling rate, rather that there was some type of program or process in place to recycle.
Without a Federal Bottle Bill and program in place, to get a clearer picture of what recycling rates are really like around the US, we have to look at the State Level.
State Level Data
First and foremost we need to discuss State Beverage Container Deposit Laws, or Bottle Bills. These laws establish CRV, or container redemption value, and have led to drastically improved recycling rates across many types of packaging types.
How does it work? When a retailer buys beverages from a distributor, a deposit is paid for each container purchased. Then, consumers pay the deposit back to the retailer when buying a beverage. We are all entitled to receive a refund for the deposit when the empty container is returned to a redemption center. Then, the distributor/supplier reimburses the redemption center for the deposit amounts paid. Laws such as these offer an incentive for the community to recycle their waste, making it a no-brainer.
Surprisingly, only 10 states and the US Territory of Guam have a deposit law in place. The opposition to change is powerful. Take Arizona, for example. Legislation was introduced in Arizona in 2008 and 2013, but efforts to enact them failed each time. In order for these bills to pass, legislators would need massive support from the public and from environmental organizations. Without support from these groups, overcoming opposition from powerful industries – beverage companies and the state’s waste haulers – it is nearly impossible. Because of the fact that beverage companies need to reimburse the deposits, they stand in hard opposition.
Bottle Bill Laws such as those found in these 10 states offer an incentive for the community to recycle their waste and redemption rates range from 44-89% in recent years.
While most states don’t report their recycling rates specific to each beverage packaging type, we know that states who have implemented these type of recycling programs have higher recycling rates than the national average, which was 27.9% in 2019.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) makes up most of the plastic packaging you see pretty much everywhere. From your window cleaner to your average soda bottle, a vast majority of these items are made from PET. It’s cheap and durable, and may be one of the easiest packaging types to recycle. However, it has its downfalls.
For starters, PET plastic is derived from oil, a nonrenewable resource and when not recycled, takes hundreds of years to break down. Non beverage specific PET recycling rates are also low in the US at 29.2%, but it is interesting to note that in some states, such as California, the average PET beverage container recycling rate is as high as 68%.
- Recyclers use additives to raise the intrinsic viscosity of PET, which can break down over time. This process allows PET to be recycled over and over again.
- Easy to transport: lightweight and durable, minimizing CO2 emissions from transportation.
- Requires less energy to manufacture compared to glass and aluminum.
- Uses oil & natural gas to produce, which are nonrenewable resources.
- Is 100% virgin, meaning it contains no recycled material.
- PET breaks down into microplastics, affecting a variety of environments including oceans, freshwater ecosystems, and air. Microplastics are suspected of working their way up the marine food chains, and into our biological systems, through a process called biomagnification. While the implications on human health are still unknown, microplastics are damaging our marine life.
rPET stands for recycled polyethylene terephthalate - plastic consisting of varying amounts of recycled PET that is given a second life. 100% rPET has a lot of environmental advantages: it emits up to 90% less carbon emissions than virgin PET, requires 90% less water, and 85% less energy to manufacture. It is also 100% recyclable and, similar to PET, is accepted at all recycling centers across the country, a huge advantage when you compare that with Glass, PLA, and Tetra Pak.
- Significantly lower CO2 emissions than PET, glass, aluminum, and tetra pak.
- Requires 85% less energy to produce than virgin PET.
- Requires 90% less water to manufacture than virgin PET.
- Eliminates the consumption of nonrenewable resources (i.e. oil & natural gas).
- 100% recyclable: approximately 40% of energy is trapped for reuse.
- Gives discarded PET a second useful life, not sitting in landfills.
- As with PET, it’s easy to transport, is light, and durable.
- Sustainability & environmental footprint depends on users: supply of rPET is dependent on consumers recycling.
- 78% of Americans think that consumers should be primarily responsible for recycling their empty bottled water containers.
- Still breaks down into microplastics if not recycled or disposed of properly. Microplastics are suspected of working their way up the marine food chains, and into human’s systems.
This one might come as a shock. Despite all the money that multi-billion dollar corporations have put into their marketing, claiming their plant-based bottles are biodegradable, they simply aren’t. PLA is instead compostable, under extremely rare circumstances.
Enzymes which hydrolyze PLA are not available in the environment except on very rare occasions, meaning in almost all cases, industrial composting facilities are required. And the likelihood of your PLA bottle making it to an industrial composting facility? Slim. To make matters worse, PLA actually pollutes the waste stream; if a PLA bottle is mistakenly added to the recycling bin, rather than taking the time to sort it all out, the recycling facility will just send it all to the landfill. There’s a big potential negative impact on the recycling stream.
Ultimately PLA requires significantly more energy and CO2 to source and manufacture, as it’s derived from corn, soy, sugar cane and palm oil. These crops are responsible for the majority of global deforestation, which is a major contributor to climate change. Although corn is a renewable resource, the majority of the corn grown in the US is genetically modified and cultivated using monocrop agriculture, stripping soil of nutrients long-term and eroding nature’s biodiversity. Corn production is also very energy intensive, requiring massive amounts of water and cheap fertilizer.
- Carbon emissions are lower compared to virgin PET, glass, and aluminum.
- Under the right conditions, it’s compostable: proteinase K catalyzse the hydrolytic degradation of PLA, breaking it down into its constituent parts (i.e. water and carbon dioxide).
- No toxic fumes released when incinerated.
- Enzymes which hydrolyze PLA are not available in the environment, except in extremely rare occasions.
- Even though PLA is compostable, it breaks down very slowly: almost three months in an industrial plant with heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill or compost bin.
- The “compostable” bio-plastics break down into a very sticky debris that creates poor compost that’s not rich and nutritious for plants, unlike compost from truly organic materials.
- You cannot recycle PLA in your curbside bins: composting must take place in separate pathways, and will pollute the waste stream if not sorted properly.
- Most PLA utilizes genetically modified corn or sugar cane, which means further costs to the environment and perhaps even human health.
- Corn production utilizes large amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticides. Nitrogen decreases water quality while ammonia is a contributor to greenhouse gases.
- There are relatively few composting plants in the US that accept PLA, resulting in costly transportation & logistics.
Due to its impermeable and nonporous characteristics, glass remains a popular packaging option. Its ability to be recycled and reused in a quick time frame helps reduce its carbon footprint significantly.
While glass can be recycled infinitely and its decomposition residue has minimal impact on nature, there are drawbacks with its weight and fragile characteristics, which significantly affect transportability and breakage: A 500mL glass bottle weighs about 400g, but a comparable 500mL PET bottle, carton or aluminium weighs about 10g. That 40 to 1 weight ratio means less efficient shipping and distribution, and, as a result, higher fuel costs and emission responsibility.
Additionally, glass is composed of a nonrenewable resource, sand. No other natural resource is extracted at the rate of sand, except water, and in certain parts of the world like Asia, we’re now seeing the toll sand mining is taking on the environment. With the extremely high demand in Asia, sand is being scooped up faster than it can replenish itself.
Removing sand from river beds harms the habitat, depriving fish of places to live, breed, and spawn. While some governments are attempting to regulate the mining and exportation of sand, it’s not so black and white. So much of it is unregulated, and only about two fifths of sand extracted is done so legally. With the demand for glass packaging going up as an eco-friendly solution, the demand for sand also goes up and in turn, takes a toll on the environment. In a perfect world, glass packaging should be only post-consumer recycled glass going forward.
Interestingly enough, the average glass recycling rates in California were actually slightly lower than PET at 63% compared to 69% for PET and rPET.
- No biomagnification factor: if it breaks into smaller pieces, it won't negatively affect the environment, unlike microplastics.
- 100% recyclable: able to be recycled endlessly without deterioration in quality.
- Glass is easily reusable, decreasing the likelihood of it ending up in a landfill or recycling center, which in turn minimizes its overall carbon footprint.
- Glass is extremely heavy, making it difficult to transport, requiring more space, trucks and fuel to get from A to B.
- Fragile nature of glass requires more padding and packaging during transit which means a higher carbon footprint.
- Glass requires a large amount of resources, such as water, to be manufactured.
- Produced using sand, a nonrenewable resource.
Aluminum is a lightweight and durable packaging option, however it's also the most energy-intensive packaging, releasing the most carbon emissions during production than any other beverage. With that said, it has the highest recycling rate of all packaging. In fact, 75% of aluminum ever produced is still in use today.
A major pro of utilizing aluminum is its recyclability; it’s easy to recycle and is accepted widely across the U.S. at almost every recycling center. No virgin materials need to be added to recycled aluminum to make another product, and it is infinitely recyclable.
When it comes to transportation and refrigeration, aluminum bottles and cans actually have the lowest carbon emissions among other beverages in glass or plastic bottles in the same conditions. A study performed by the Aluminum Association by ICF International showed that the emissions associated with transporting and cooling aluminum cans are 7 to 21 percent lower than plastic bottles, and 35 to 49 percent lower than glass.
For aluminum to be truly eco-friendly, products need to include, at the very minimum, a small percentage of recycled aluminum in their packaging to reduce their carbon output. Waiākea’s refillable aluminum bottle is 100% recyclable and contains an alloy that is made up of 25% recycled content in a mix of post-consumer recycled aluminum and post-industrial scrap.
In some cases, like the Waiākea Hana Hou bottle, aluminum cans can actually be safely refilled and reused. With each refill, you save the equivalent carbon emissions of driving 2 miles.
- 100% recyclable: able to be recycled endlessly without deterioration in quality.
- Recycled aluminum packaging can reduce emissions by 95%.
- High recycling rates: 75% of aluminum ever produced is still in use today.
- Sturdy, leak-resistant and stackable making it easy to transport.
- Lower emissions during transportation than glass.
- Large carbon footprint during production is responsible for emitting approximately 547 million tons of CO2: only sustainable if recycled and reused.
- Extremely energy-intensive: it takes about 17,000 kWh of electricity to produce 1 tonne of aluminum.
- Requires bauxite to produce: a nonrenewable resource and energy-intensive to mine.
Tetra Pak is light and can be folded flat to ship, making it cheaper and more energy efficient to transport. However, while it looks like cardboard, don’t be fooled; Tetra Pak contains many layers of plastic, paper, and aluminum that are tough to separate in the recycling stream.
- 54% paper
- 28% plastic
- 15% protective plastic film
- 3% aluminum
For this reason, Tetra Pak is very difficult to recycle and is only accepted at special recycling facilities.
Many cities and states in the U.S. still do not recycle Tetra Pak. The city of San Francisco, known for its robust recycling programs, trucks its Tetra Pak to a facility in Mexico, 2,000 miles away. In fact, Tetra Pak does not meet any of the requirements to be legally considered a recyclable material in the California Beverage Container Recycling & Litter Reduction Act:
14504 (b) 1 - "Beverage" does not include any of the following: (1) Any product sold in a container that is not an aluminum beverage container, a glass container, a plastic beverage container, or a bimetal container
While Tetra Pak is technically recyclable, it is never “recycled”. Instead, it is downcycled, meaning a Tetra Pak is never turned into a new Tetra Pak again. Rather, it's turned into a different product with a lower quality of material until it ends up in a landfill or an incinerator. In short, it can never be part of a closed-loop recycling system.
In order to recycle TetraPak, products using this type of packaging must be sent to a facility that is equipped with the proper equipment to process the different layers of these types of containers. As it stands, there is not a high enough volume of TetraPak being used to make it worth investing in the specialized equipment. Without that critical mass needed, the materials within these containers can not be separated from the waste stream and are not widely recycled.
- Made predominantly from paper, a renewable resource.
- Lower carbon footprint to produce.
- The rectangular packaging and lightweight material makes it extremely easy to pack & transport.
- Carton packaging is not 100% paper: contains aluminum and low-density polyethylene (plastic) as well.
- Is challenging to recycle due to the additional layers of plastic and aluminum which ultimately cannot be separated from each other without specialized equipment.
- Many cities in the US still do not recycle Tetra Pak.
Cultivating sustainable practices to address climate change is paramount to ensure future generations will thrive. When it comes to beverage packaging, whichever approach one day minimizes, reduces or eliminates the amount of greenhouse gases deserves our attention and energy.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. There’s a lot to digest here and as you can see, there are pros and cons to every packaging type - no single one is perfect. The best way to be more eco-friendly is to reduce consumption habits and use of single use packaging, full stop.
However, that’s not always an option - sometimes we forget our refillable bottles at home, or travel, for example. That’s why we’re committed to providing the most sustainable options we can, while promising to continue to innovate our packaging and manufacturing operations. With innovation comes change, and hopefully a domino effect across all sectors and industries towards a more sustainable future.
We believe that recycled content is crucial. Whether it’s aluminum, PET or glass, we should all be pushing organizations and brands to make their packaging from recycled materials. That’s why we use recycled PET, or RPET; it doesn’t require the consumption of raw, virgin materials and is THE lowest contributor to carbon emissions. We have enough plastic in circulation, so let’s start reusing it.
It’s also why we’ve created the world’s first OceanPlast™ bottle. Made from 100% recycled material, this initiative removes plastic bottles from ocean bound waterways and beaches, transforming plastic waste into a product that has the lowest eco-footprint of any beverage packaging based on carbon emissions, energy use, water use, and assumption of infinite recycling economy.
Additionally, reusable and refillable packaging, such as our refillable aluminum Hana Hou bottles are clearly an obvious win.
Sustainability is a collaborative effort where users play a huge role. Recycling rates are relatively low in the US - however, compared to states such as California where the right incentives are in place, recycling rates can be as efficient as 75%. A concerted effort must take place from citizens putting pressure on their local legislations to establish CRV programs and get their local recycling programs in order.