The Impact of Packaging on the Environment: Is Plastic the Only Demon?

impact of packaging on the environment - bale of packaging waste

Hygiene, minimising food wastage, easy distribution. There are many valid reasons why supermarket shelves are filled with packaged products. 

But the amount of packaging waste that’s left behind is a serious threat to our environment. 

We celebrated when the plastic bag fee was introduced across Europe. We’re excited to see zero waste shops gaining popularity and we look forward to the ban on certain plastics.

But all too often we, and the media, are quick to condemn the use of all plastic packaging. Should we be so quick to judge without considering the negative effects of other packaging? 

Let’s take a more holistic look at the real impact of packaging on the environment.

Drip, Drip, Drip: The Long Term Impact of Packaging on the Environment

As consumers, we dispose of tonnes of packaging materials each year. These don’t simply disappear into thin air. Much of our waste is taken to landfill sites. Here, packaging materials including plastic, paper, tin and glass take hundreds of years to decompose. If they do at all.

That’s assuming that these items were responsibly disposed of in a rubbish bin. If not, yesterday’s sandwich wrapper may well end up polluting oceans and rivers. 

impact of packaging on the environment - paper and cardboard ready for recycling

While our waste is sitting in landfill, new single-use packaging is produced to meet consumer demand. The earth is mined and quarried to access raw materials. Which then go to landfill whilst the previous batch is still festering.

It doesn’t take long to realise the craziness of this linear, rather than circular economy. Or the impact of this never ending packaging cycle on the environment.

Sadly landfill and littering are not the only negative effects of packaging on the environment.

Approximately 70% of UK packaging waste is recycled. Which sounds great! Recycling is less destructive and energy intensive than sourcing raw materials. But it’s still a process which contributes to fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions. 

More household waste, recyclable or not, means larger rubbish trucks. Plus more frequent collections to keep the streets clean. Both need more fuel which adds to the environmental costs.

Is Plastic Really the Biggest Culprit?

Plastics, and not just single-use plastics, play a major part in our current environmental issues. The impact of plastic packaging on the environment is huge. After the 2018 Coastal Clean Up, Ocean Conservancy found that seven of the top ten collected items contained plastic.

Surprisingly, the most common waste product in our oceans wasn’t plastic packaging. But irresponsibly disposed of cigarette butts

Research from the British Plastics Federation shows that plastic packaging has a place. Plastic can help to reduce total packaging mass, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.

Plastic also has a positive role in reducing food waste by keeping food fresher for longer. A lack of adequate packaging leads to more food spoilage. In developing countries 30-50% of perishable food decays before it reaches the shops. 

impact of packaging on the environment - pallets of cardboard on dock

What Are Our Alternatives to Plastic Packaging?

The most common alternatives to plastic are paper, glass and metal. But replacing all plastic with these materials isn’t an ultimate solution. It would, in some respects, cause further negative effects on the environment. 

Each material has its own set of environmental consequences. 

Consider this…

You’re going to the supermarket to buy some chopped tomatoes. Let’s rule out a paper bag as we already know that would be very messy. 

pile of tomatoes

Your chopped tomatoes could be packaged in a cardboard Tetra Pak carton, a glass jar or a tin. Tetra Pak cartons are lined with plastic and have a complicated recycling process. These can’t readily be reused at home so will, most likely, end up in landfill.

A glass jar or a tin can be reused hundreds of times before eventually being recycled. This sounds great. But, as far as water usage and energy consumption go, glass and tin are costly to produce and recycle. As single-use packaging materials they’re very expensive and impractical. 

We should also consider where the item has travelled from. Let’s say your chopped tomatoes were packaged in glass jars by a local farmer in Sicily.  Then they were transported by truck to the UK. 

The energy and C02 emissions involved in transporting your pasta sauce staple are going to be high. 

Up to 40% less fuel is required to transport plastic bottles than glass bottles. The same would apply to our humble jars of chopped tomatoes.

So is the plastic lined Tetra Pak the worst solution? 

tomato sauce in glass jar

Taking a Closer Look at Supposedly ‘Green’ Packaging Alternatives 

Plastic is lightweight, durable enough to be used many times and incredibly versatile. That’s something that can’t be said for paper, metal or glass. Let’s examine this more closely. 

Paper Packaging

A paper bag. It’s recyclable and an excellent packaging option, right? 

They might last for many uses. But a paper bag takes four times the amount of energy to produce than a plastic one. 

The energy required to recycle paper is significantly greater than that needed to recycle the same weight of plastic. And that’s only if our ‘eco-friendly’ paper bag ends up in a recycling plant. If not, it will sit next to plastic in landfill, taking up a greater volume of space.

paper and string wrapping

Glass Packaging

Glass is 100% recyclable and, in theory, it can be recycled an infinite number of times. But making glass requires quarrying and fuelling an industrial scale furnace. 

Also, if glass is contaminated with food, it complicates the recycling process. This means the costs may outweigh the benefits. Often, contaminated glass is used in cement or concrete rather than being recycled.

Metal Packaging

Like glass, metals such as aluminium and steel can be recycled an infinite number of times. In the UK, aluminium cans can be recycled, filled and back in your local supermarket in as little as 60 days!

But metal cans need to get to the recycling plant in the first place. 50% of aluminium packaging and 25% of steel packaging doesn’t actually get recycled.

impact of packaging on the environment - pile of rusting tins

What About the Impact of Environmentally Friendly Packaging Materials?

Some eco conscious companies, such as Snact, have made the switch from plastic to compostable food packaging. Compostable and biodegradable packaging breaks down typically within a year. 

Compostable materials additionally break down to a substance which benefits the soil. This could be on a home compost heap or an industrial composting facility.

Industrial composting plants still consume water and energy. And they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Compostable materials can’t be processed by a standard recycling plant so specialist facilities are needed. 

In the long term though, biodegradable and compostable packaging could be a solution. The materials won’t clog up landfill sites and may even be reused as plant fertiliser.

snact packaging decomposing into nothing

A Holistic Approach to Reducing the Negative Effects of Packaging on the Environment

We’ve seen great progress towards a future of limited packaging in the UK. Many of us are now ready to bring our own containers or pay more for eco-friendly packaging

We shouldn’t forget though, that plastic-free packaging is not always guilt-free packaging. 

Whichever material we choose to wrap and pack our products, we need to think about its impact on the environment. 

Switching to glass, metal or paper packaging is not enough. Wishful recycling is not the environmental solution we’ve been led to believe. Compostable and biodegradable packaging is a step in the right direction but the UK is not yet equipped for large scale composting.

To minimise the negative effects of packaging on the environment, we need to reduce packaging waste. Recycling should be our last resort.