Glass presents a variety of advantages and challenges as a packaging material. Glass doesn't react with its contents, making it a favorite for acidy foods like fruits and tomato-based sauces. Glass is a durable and desirable solution for refill programs for a variety of products (beer, milk, and now coffee beans from Toronto's Balluchon Cafe).
Materials to make glass are fairly abundant and easy to come by—plus it's readily accepted for recycling in a huge number of markets. BUT… glass is the heaviest of all options, making lighter plastic versions (even though they are made of petroleum and are recycled at much lower rates than glass) a more attractive option when energy impacts of the whole of the supply chain are taken into account.
However, this does not mean glass can't BE an option; it just means you have to know why you're choosing glass, and to do it for all the right reasons. Here, transport distance, transport methods, package life cycle, and package/product function are the keys to understanding how to best use glass.
As we look harder at glass, some interesting things pop up. In the UK, for example, though they export clear glass in the form of sprit products, green glass in the form of wine bottles makes up a big percentage of what is coming into the country. This has unfortunately created a shortage of clear cullet available to make recycled clear glass bottles.
While the UK market takes in large amounts of green glass, they do manage to recycle it—the green bottles made there contain at least 85% recycled green glass. Surplus green cullet is either exported (increasing the GHG load that shipment of glass would carry) to make new green bottles or is used in alternative markets within the UK (keeping GHG loads lower for that shipment) such as in fiberglass insulation, brick manufacturing, or as filtration media in effluent treatment works.
While recycling glass presents difficulties and negative impacts associated with manufacturing and recycling, refill programs using glass containers coupled with regular pickup of empties and drop-off of refilled product have a long history of success. Once transportation and remanufacturing energy are taken out of the equation, glass really is an ideal material choice on a variety of levels.
Two notable refillable bottle success stories are Stewart's Shops in upstate New York and the Beer Store in Ontario, Canada. Stewart's Shops is an employee- and family-owned convenience store chain known for offering high quality milk, ice cream, coffee, and other convenience foods that they produce and distribute themselves. At their 327 Stewart's Shops, three-quarters of what they sell originates from one plant. Stewart's Shops president Bill Dake has been committed to a refillable program for their beverage bottles for decades, and the company is also committed to giving about 5% of their profits to communities and charities.
The Beer Store in Ontario, Canada, continues to talk about their global leadership in the practice of extended producer responsibility. The company was featured recently in an April 20, 2009 article in www.treehugger.com, along with other producers of refillable glass packaging. In the article, Sara J. Taylor, manager of communications at the Beer Store, was quoted as saying: "What's unusual about us is that people forget they're being environmentally friendly, because it's just something we've always done." To read more about The Beer Store, go to their website at www.thebeerstore.ca.
While glass packaging not in a closed-loop system has to grapple with eco issues and transport costs that lighter competitors do not have, The Beer Store was the first company to be presented with Canada's Eco Logo award, presented for its efficient environmental package management systems.
How The Beer Store earned their recognition:
• The Beer Store pioneered the first returnable bottle system in 1927, a user-pay system paid for by beer customers, for beer consumers.
• The Beer Store's system-wide recovery and reuse rate of 98% for the industry standard bottle, which is then reused 12 to 15 times.
• The Beer Store takes back everything it sells, from bottle caps, photodegradable cone plastic rings, PET bottles, plastic bags, and all of the different types of paper and paperboard used.
• The Beer Store picks up over 100,000 metric tons (220,462,262 lbs.) of beer packaging each year from over 17,500 licensed establishments.
The Sustainability Update is coordinated by Wendy Jedlicka, CPP - Jedlicka Design Ltd. (www.jedlicka.com), o2 International Network for Sustainable Design (www.o2.org and www.o2umw.org), Minneapolis College of Art and Design's groundbreaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program (www.mcad.edu/sustainable).