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Reinventing Glass

The huge glass packaging industry could make a big impact in the transition to sustainable packaging systems. Glass packaging is a major industry employing 40,000 people in Europe and it is economically important because products in glass containers make up €250 billion of Europe’s exports, far more than is contained in plastics.

Glass has a high carbon footprint compared to plastic and aluminium but it can be  used sustainably to have less environmental impact. Glass is an inert material which makes it good for re-use, while there are issues with re-using the most common plastic polymer, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). 

Glass is good for recycling too. It can be recycled almost indefinitely and fits the ideal ‘closed-loop’ recycling model where it can be used for the same purpose over and over again without producing any more carbon. It also remains pure so that it can be used for foodstuffs for ever. Manufacturers like to use glass because it comes in so many shapes and colours and is good for branding, and unlike plastic glass doesn’t bring the issues of micro plastics in the sea.

Altogether, if we could use less plastic, glass might fill the gap.

Single use, re-use and recycling

The big issue with glass lies with single use glass, typically beverage bottles. Statista estimates that 743.26 billion units were used in 2023 and this is increasing. 

FEVE, which represents over 90% of Europe’s glass packaging industry, says this equals a third of the beverage packaging market and that about half of the bottles are returnable or re-usable compared to only 4% of PET containers which often become litter.

The EU leads the world in recycling glass but the process uses 75% of the energy needed to manufacture a new bottle so it only reduces the energy-intensiveness of the industry by 25%. This means that recycling single use glass will never reduce emissions enough to meet greenhouse gas (GHGs) targets.

FEVE says that the new hybrid furnaces appearing across Europe will reduce the energy used for processing bottles by about 30% and that the industry can switch to renewable energy. But the reality is that this relies on governments investing in renewables which is not happening consistently across all countries.

Moving to refillable glass bottles would make a big difference to GHGs but only if they can be part of a system that functions effectively. The challenge is to find a system that works for the consumer and the manufacturer. Deposit return systems where bottles are returned and re-used rely on consumers doing the right thing and do not work where beverages are exported over long distances. Also, the glass industry needs to think in terms of return rates, transport and washing and how to reach a commercial break-even point with re-used containers.

FEVE says that if more bottles are returned and re-used, fewer will be recycled. However re-using bottles would be beneficial in regions that do not have recycling services.

We need to re-invent glass

So, how can we use glass more sustainably in a Net Zero world?

Some companies, such as EcoSpirits, have developed systems that ship beverages in bulk in re-usable glass vessels and use local bottling and refillable self-service machines to serve customers. They have proved that this way of distributing wines and spirits to pubs and restaurants is commercially viable.

If consumers could also return their bottles to be re-filled locally with the same brand, this would be a huge step forwards toward a more sustainable system.

The challenge for manufacturers is to recycle glass with less energy and to maintain the current level of re-use while moving to more sustainable ‘re-use systems’ in future.

Studies by the global consultancy firm Deloitte show that removing single use glass could bring a staggering reduction of 60-90% in carbon emissions. This is the kind of ambitious thinking the industry needs. 

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Top view bottles alcohol - Image by Freepik (ST ref: 1245)

macro shot of clear glass bottles - Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash (ST ref: 1241)

Circular One Closed Loop System - Image by Ecosprit (ST ref: 1240)


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