Is glass actually better than plastic?
At Kōv Skincare we chose glass as the vessel for our skincare products because we assumed glass had the environmental advantage over plastic, but the more we read about both materials we realized that it wasn’t as clear and obvious as we thought. So what’s better, glass or plastic packaging?
Let’s start by highlighting the problems with glass packaging:
- Glass is made from sand. And as it turns out, sand is in short supply these days. We actually use more sand than we do oil (1), and unfortunately, sand from the desert cannot be used to make glass.
- Most glass isn’t recycled. In the US (we couldn’t find the stats for Canada) on average only 33% of glass is recycled.
- Glass is heavier and therefore more energy intensive to ship.
- Making new glass is more energy intensive than making new plastics.
- Glass takes a long time to degrade in the landfill. Estimated to be 1 million years.
- Some municipalities don’t have a recycling system for glass. It may get crushed up and used as cover for landfill before dirt is added.
Okay, so lots to improve upon there but what are the benefits of glass packaging.
- Glass can be recycled forever. It’s a closed loop system. You just melt it down and begin again. It doesn’t create any additional waste or by-products (2).
- Glass is made from all-natural resources, such as sand, soda ash, limestone and recycled glass.
- Glass is nonporous and impermeable and has an almost zero rate of chemical interactions, which ensures the products inside a glass bottle keep their flavour, strength and aroma with no chemicals leaching into your skincare or food products.
- There is no harmful off gassing from glass. And as it degrades it doesn’t create new unknown chemicals.
But what about plastics? Well, we don’t want to beat up on plastics but there are some major problems to be identified here.
- First plastics aren’t really recyclable. In fact it is estimated that only 9% of plastics ever created have been recycled (3). We were made to believe plastics were recyclable, but this was actually due to a concerted effort by oil companies to make the public believe plastics weren’t going to be an environmental issue (4). Where did those recycling numbers and symbols you see on plastic containers come from? The fossil fuel industry.
- When plastics aren’t recycled, they break down into smaller pieces—microplastics. Plastic pollution is everywhere from the most remote mountain peaks to the deepest oceans. Microplastics have even been revealed to be in the placentas of unborn babies (5).
- Plastic recycling is not a closed loop. You can’t recycle it forever like glass or aluminum. When you reheat plastic, it gets weaker every time. It can’t come back indefinitely as a new version of itself. What often happens with plastics is they get downcycled (e.g. a PET bottle becomes a jacket, and you can’t recycle the jacket) (2).
- Plastics are made with fossil fuels and chemistry that create hundreds of new chemical compositions that we don’t fully understand yet. They impact our health in negative ways. Want to see how corporations use their money, and political power to keep the public from finding out that they are poisoning us? Check out the movie Dark Waters or the documentary Toxic Beauty.
- Big oil is involved. You know what that means. Big oil is insidious. Just look at the influence the Koch brothers have had on politics and urban development (6). Spoiler alert—they are against any agenda that would result in less use of fossil fuels and spent millions for scientists to work with them to manufacture the idea that climate change was a “hoax”. As we pivot away from fossil fuels as fuel, companies are pushing plastics on us as a way of pumping oil and gas even when we know we need to keep it in the ground (2.)
In fact, in light of all the negatives around plastics I don’t really want to talk about plastic’s upside but to be fair here goes. Plastic is more energy efficient to produce than glass, and lighter to ship. Plastic can be molded into whatever shape you want and is incredibly durable. We wouldn’t have pumps for our bottles without plastics and believe me we looked for better alternatives.
So which is better? Well truth be told glass has an obvious edge to us as overall it doesn’t poison your body and the environment. But glass isn’t perfect either and has a serious environmental impact. So what’s the solution here? Reuse! One of small things we as individuals can do that can have a big impact is to start reusing our packaging. Which is one of the reasons why at Kōv Skincare have gone for the more expensive option of glass packaging. We want to create packaging that can be reused, we want to create packaging that could go on and live a second life in your home and avoid the incredibly imperfect systems that are landfill, and recycling stations. As businesses, we can chose to use materials that are better for the environment. The burden should be on businesses and governments, not the consumer.