Glass Versus Plastic Bottles - The Pros and Cons
For over half a century people and businesses have had to decide whether to use glass or plastic bottles. It is not as clear cut as you might think at first, there are many factors to consider such as environmental impact of glass or plastic bottles, how much it costs to use plastic or glass, shipping costs and the containers impact on the taste of the contents.
There has been a recent spike in media coverage of plastic pollution and we think it is more paramount than ever to factor in the environmental impact of commercial activities, consumers are waking up to the importance of sustainability. In 2016 it is estimated that 480 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold worldwide and less than 50% of these were recycled, meaning over 50% ended up in landfill or the ocean. This is devastating for wildlife and marine life as plastic spoils habitats, pollutes the food chain and causes sickness and death, this is especially bad in our oceans where plastics are degraded by the sea into micro-plastics that build up in the digestive systems of marine life.
With this is mind we split the pros and cons of plastic and glass bottle use into environmental and commercial pro and cons under separate headings to provide insight into why plastic bottles are so widely used despite obvious environmental concerns and we provide at the end a recommendation of whether to use glass or plastic from both points of view based on our findings whilst researching and writing this article.
Plastic Bottle Benefits
Plastic Bottle Benefits - Commercial
1. Plastic bottles are cheap.
In most cases it costs less than £0.45/$0.60 per bottle for a 16oz/500ml bottle delivered in quantity. For large companies its estimated that plastic bottles can even be as cheap as £0.03/$0.05 per bottle. Having a cheaper bottle means you can sell your drink for less and many customers like to go for the cheapest option.
2. Plastic is an incredibly light material.
How light plastic is contributes to how cheap it is to order plastic bottles, this is because shipping costs are less due to requiring less fuel to transport the plastic bottles. This shipping saving is also passed on to the customer when selling and shipping the product contained within the plastic. For large companies this tends to only work for the people they supply because more often than not they make their plastic bottles on site. Storing the plastic bottles is also considerably easier because of how light it is, depending on location and quantity it is much less likely heavy machinery will be required than if glass was used.
3. Plastic is incredibly durable.
There is practically no breakage when using plastic bottles, when dropped from a great height or carelessly thrown into the back of a van a plastic bottle will always survive but a glass bottle is highly likely to break, the breakage cost passed onto the seller of the bottled product, if broke in shipping its possible the courier or logistics service will front the cost but not in all cases.
Plastic Bottle Benefits - Environmental
1. Plastic is an incredibly light material.
Plastic being lighter than glass means there is less environmental impact in terms of shipping, in fact in many cases where large companies use plastic bottles they are actually made on site so the only shipping is to points of sale. So less greenhouse gases are emitted when transporting plastic bottles compared to glass bottles.
2. Plastic production less energy intensive than glass production.
Creating plastic does not require the vast amounts of energy that glass production involves, this is because glass has to be heated to a much higher temperature in order to mould it into the shape required.
Plastic Bottle Drawbacks
Plastic Bottle Drawbacks - Commercial
1. Plastic bottles are perceived as inferior compared to glass bottles.
Plastic does not look or feel as premium as a glass bottle would, even though a glass bottle would be cost more than a plastic, bottling a product in a glass bottle would mean you could ask a higher price for the product. Glass bottles looking more visually appealing will also mean that consumers will perceive the contents as tasting better even if there is an identical fluid in a plastic bottle, there are a huge range of studies supporting this.
2. There is a risk of chemically contaminating the contents.
Plastic can transmit a chemical taste into its contents due to tiny amounts of chemicals seeping into the contents. Scientists have now moved away from asking if plastic containers contaminate their contents and now ask how much is the contents contaminated. One such noteworthy toxin is BPA which is toxic to humans but this tends to be present in hard plastics not those used for plastic bottles. You may also recall reading about the dangers of leaving plastic bottles in sunlight however these stories have been declared as hoaxes or to coin a phrase we despite fake news. Research into the use and dangers of plastic is still ongoing though at the moment plastic is deemed safe it could be the case some chemicals transmitted increase the risk of cancer or other diseases.
3. Current media interest in plastic pollution.
Across the internet, televisions, magazines and newspapers plastic is under attack and admittedly being biased here... Rightly so! Our current attitude to how we consume is incredibly short sighted and wasteful, the importance of sustainability is becoming ever more apparent as our wastefulness begins to impact our wildlife, our weather, our landscape, our rivers and our oceans. Plastic pollution is a hot topic recently and finally our attitudes are slowly beginning to change. There is a long way to go but we are finally heading in the right direction. This means that plastic is slowly becoming less commercially viable as the market shrinks for potential customers of drinks within plastic bottles as more and more people consciously avoid single use plastic. The sad truth is a significant proportion of humanity do not care and never will care but the more people that change their ways the more businesses need to factor this into their decision making process.
Plastic Bottle Drawbacks - Environmental
1. Plastic takes over 200 years to decompose.
The same properties that make plastic great in terms of durability also make plastic a nightmare to dispose of. Nearly every single piece of plastic ever created still exists in some form today, this is means landfills are overflowing it is also important to remember that not all plastic ends up being recycled or sent to landfill, sometimes it ends up in our oceans.
2. Plastic contains toxins.
Some plastic contains Bisphenol-A or BPA for short, this is toxic to humans and other animals. Small amounts of BPA will migrate into whatever is in contact with it however these quantities are thought to be "safe" at the moment though more research is in progress. It is also thought that plastic contains other toxins too but again this is still undergoing research. If plastic containing BPA degrades or is destroyed incorrectly all this toxin is released in unsafe quantities into soils and air which can ruin farmland and contaminate water supplies.
3. Plastic has limited recyclability.
Many plastics cannot be recycled at all, those that can be are mainly down-cycled so used for road surfaces or compressed into bricks. Those that remain that can be refashioned into bottles again for example this can only be done a couple times before the structure of the plastic is destroyed beyond salvageable levels.
Glass Bottle Benefits
Glass Bottle Benefits - Commercial
1. Glass bottles look more premium than plastic.
Having a drink in a glass bottle sets it apart from those in plastic bottles as it feels and looks more of a luxury item, because glass is more aesthetically appealing than plastic. This means that you can charge a higher price for a drink in a glass bottle than a plastic bottle, maybe charge more than the amount more it is costing to use glass opposed to plastic too. It is proven that we eat with our eyes so to speak, lots of research has been done into how our taste buds work and it is a multi sensory experience so if something looks better we perceive it as tasting better.
2. Glass is odourless and tasteless.
Glass not having any taste or emitting any odours means that there is no effect on the taste of the contents of a glass bottle, something stored in a plastic bottle would have a slight chemical taste. So if you want something to taste as intended then glass is the best material to store it in.
3. Glass is made of easily available natural resources.
Because glass consists of sand and ash it contains no harmful chemicals or toxins so it has a 0% risk of contaminating its contents. Also sand and ash are both materials that are abundant pretty much everywhere, this means glass can be made in the countries that it is required meaning that there is no need to ship glass vast distances. Though glass is not as cheap as plastic it is not an expensive material to use.
Glass Bottle Benefits - Environmental
1. Glass is easy to clean and sterilise
So why is this an environmental benefit? Because it means that glass can be easily cleaned for recycling and in the case of glass bottles reused. Some companies even offer money back to customers who return their bottles as it saves the companies money as they do not have to order or make more bottles. Glass is robust when it comes to everyday wear and tear so is ideal for reuse, however the opposite can be true if dropped from a height onto a hard surface.
2. Glass bottles and jars are 100% recyclable.
Glass bottles and jars and can be recycled over and over again without ever losing quality or purity. Though not all glass is recyclable it always is in the case of glass bottles, glass in general most of it is recyclable and up to 87% of recycled glass can be reclaimed. Recycling glass is not just good for the environment because it is less going to landfill, to make glass from recycled glass uses about 60% less energy than creating new glass.
3. Glass contains no toxic or harmful chemicals.
This means no people, plants or wildlife will ever be poisoned by toxins when glass is discarded. Glass that finds its way into the ocean would simply break into smaller pieces until it was sand and the water would not become contaminated in any way.
Glass Bottle Drawbacks
Glass Bottle Drawbacks - Commercial
1. Glass bottles are more expensive than plastic bottles.
Glass bottles can be expensive especially if you are a small business, if you are buying in small quantities it can cost over £1.50/$2.00 for a 16oz/500ml glass bottle. In larger quantities when you include shipping it can still cost up to £0.75/$1.00 per bottle, though for large businesses with more buying power this cost can be brought dramatically down to around £0.15/$0.20 per bottle.
2. Glass bottles are heavier than plastic bottles.
Glass being heavier means that it costs more to ship than plastic so this will include shipping to the bottling facility and shipping to customers. Glass being heavier also means that it can be more difficult to store, imagine trying to lift a box of glass bottles compared to plastic to place them on top of each other. It might be the case that machinery is needed when storing glass bottles which would not be required for plastic bottles.
3. Glass can be brittle.
Glass bottles break allot easier than plastic bottles, accidents and carelessness happens so breakages happen and they will add expense. If glass bottles are broke during shipping it is sometimes possible the courier or logistics service will front the cost but not in all cases.
Glass Bottle Drawbacks - Environmental
1. Sharp broken glass.
Broken glass if not disposed of properly can be bad for the environment by potentially causing harm to people or wildlife. Smashed pieces of glass tend to be incredibly sharp and can even kill people or animals if they are unfortunate enough to sever arteries or other major blood vessels.
2. Larger carbon footprint for single use bottles.
The production and transportation of glass bottles has a larger carbon footprint than plastic bottles, due to glass being heavier than plastic it requires more fuel to transport it over the same amount of distance.
3. Producing glass is an energy-intensive process
The raw materials required for glass have to be heated to temperatures of around 1,600°C, this means a hot furnace requiring a lot of energy most of which is generated from burning fossil fuels. Modern advancements in technology are helping with this though, over the past 30 years or so the energy required per ton of glass has halved and systems that capture and recovering heat that escapes from furnaces is sometimes used to produce energy that goes back into the grid. Also do not forget to factor in that if a glass bottle is reused enough the carbon footprint can be lower than that of a plastic bottle.
Glass Vs Plastic Bottles - The Conclusion
Glass Vs Plastic Bottles - Commercial
If I was writing this article say 10 years ago the commercial conclusion would be different, but recently there has been a huge shift in public opinion to single use plastic. Some evidence of this is the delivery arm Milk & More told the BBC that in the first quarter of 2018 they gained an extra 15,000 online customers and 90% of these new customers specifically wanted milk in glass bottles. There are more cases such as a recent petition in the UK gaining traction against Walker's Crisps and their plastic coated crisp packets, calling for the crisp packets to be made out of less environmentally damaging materials. Because of this I would recommend for a long term business the use of glass should be seriously considered if the costs and potential profit margins allow it, if plastic has to be used to make the books balance then this should be a short term measure with the plan to switch to glass once the business has grown enough to reduce the extra cost of glass enough and still be profitable. I will back this argument with the Walker's petition, as Walker's responded to the petition actually endorsing it and said that they were developing new packaging that is more environmentally friendly.
Glass Vs Plastic Bottles - Environmental
Here is something to think about, almost all plastic ever created still exists in some form. It is thought that the UK uses 13 billion plastic bottles a year. To help break down that 13 billion plastic bottles a year figure think of 200 bottles per person per year, that is a rather huge figure and does not account for the other types of plastic packaging people consume. Most of these plastic bottles are not recycled and if you move away from the UK alone and think about the globe there is an estimated 2.7 million tons of plastic bottles that are consumed year on year. Even without talking about the toxins within plastic if you are to weigh up the environmental costs and benefits between the glass bottle and plastic bottle then the glass bottle is a clear winner. Yes it is true glass bottles have a larger carbon footprint when only used once but at least glass is not polluting our oceans and killing our marine life, plus if the glass bottle is reused and recycled even the carbon footprint is smaller.
Not a business deciding on whether to use glass or plastic bottles?
You Can Still Join The Cause
Even a Tiny Change Can Have a Huge Impact!
Having milk delivered to your door in a glass bottle used to be the norm however, between the years of 1975 to 2015 the amount of milk sold in glass bottles reduced by around 90%, milk suppliers of all sizes have moved away from glass bottling and switched to plastic only. However recently sales of milk in glass bottles have been on the rise, the reason being the environmental concerns of plastic. In 2017 David Attenborough made a plea on Blue Planet II for people to cut down on plastic and to back his argument he showcased some of the damage done to our oceans. This caused traction on Social Media and added fuel to the new trend of ditching plastic and sourcing alternatives.
Join the movement and take a look at our Store one of our specialities is sourcing products to replace plastics. It is going to take a lot to slow down and reverse the damage but we all need to start taking responsibility, go to findmeamilkman.net if you are interested in replacing plastic milk bottles for glass ones and even have them delivered to your door. Make sure you contact the suppliers first to ensure you will actually receive milk in glass and not plastic.
For other tips and ideas on ways to reduce your plastic consumption take a look at our article Plastic Waste Reduction and take a look at our store.
Please help us and buy something and finance our work to continue to raise awareness on these environmental issues because knowledge is key to saving our planet.