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If I had a choice to decide between packaging materials, I would like to know how good or bad a packaging material is for the environment.
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Broadly speaking, plastic is considered to have one of the worst environmental impacts of all packaging materials as it is produced from a limited resource using a process that releases high levels of greenhouse gases. However, when recycled, these emissions are greatly reduced. https://www.newplasticseconomy.org/ is a really good website which gives details about how redesigning the way we use plastic may allow us to “eliminate plastic waste and pollution”.

You can generally find out whether a product can be recycled by looking at the symbol on the outside of the packaging. However, just because a product doesn’t have one of these symbols, doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled. Look at https://www.recyclenow.com/what-to-do-with for more information on what can and can’t be recycled.

 Although published in 2007 so is a little old, this paper gives a good overview of the environmental impacts of different packaging types. Specifically, the paper talks a little about how plastic, glass, paper/board, metal and composite packaging materials are made, their pros and cons , and in what way they can contribute to pollution: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229796182_The_Environmental_Impacts_of_Packaging To summarise:

Packaging materialProsCons
Paper/board
  • Highly recyclable
  • Renewable source
  • Weaker than plastics/metals
  • Limited uses
Glass
  • Materials for manufacture highly available and cheap
  • Heavy
  • Fragile
  • Requires high temperature for manufacture
Steel
  • Strong and highly durable
  • Requires high energy for manufacture
  • Finite source
Aluminium
  • Lightweight
  • Highly available
  • Extraction is expensive
  • Production is energy demanding
Plastics
  • Lightweight
  • Wide range of applications
  • Not always recyclable
  • Finite source
  • High levels of pollution
Composites
  • Combination of materials so have many specific uses (where other packaging types may not suffice)
  • Can reduce energy usage and materials needed
  • Difficult to recycle
Degradable plastics
  • Renewable source
  • Biodegradable
  • Lightweight
  • Relatively expensive to produce
Wood
  • Renewable source
  • Highly reusable
  • Heavy

by (840 points)
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Plastic
Pros – Light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make, robust if suited to application, waterproof, wipeable
Cons – Not always recyclable/downcyclable*, uses a finite resource, chemicals in plastic can leach into food, it becomes brittle over time, it can break easily if unsuited to application, it wears badly and can look ugly after short-term wear, stains badly when exposed to acid based liquids / foods.

Compostable Plastic
Pros – Doesn’t last hundred of years, made from renewable resources, light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make,
Cons – Need to be segregated from other plastics to decompose, chemicals in it may leach into food, long-term impact on soil and water is untested, typically made from GM crops and can be made from animals

Plant-based Plastic (Polyethylene)
Pros – From a renewable resource, light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make, robust if suited to application, waterproof, wipeable
Cons – Not recyclable, not compostable, not biodegradable,

Recycled / Downcycled Plastic (including recycled synthetic fabric)
Pros – Uses up a waste product, light, waterproof
Cons – Could be contaminated, downcycling of plastic generates micro-plastics in the environment, downcycling uses up water, recycling can’t reclaim all of the energy embodied in an item so downcyclable plastic is still damaging our planet, plastic downcycled into fleece adds microplastics to our oceans with every wash.

Glass
Pros – can be recycled infinitely (except for borosilicate glass like Pyrex), is inert (chemicals don’t leach into or from it), is long-lasting if cared for carefully, washable
Cons – is heavy and so uses more fuel to transport, can break easily, requires a lot of energy to make and recycle,

Aluminium
Pros – light so uses less fuel to transport, can be recycled infinitely, washable, not as durable as other metals
Cons – uses chemicals as part of the recycling process if printed with images, i.e. soda cans,

Tin Cans
Pros – lighter than glass so uses less fuel to transport, can be recycled infinitely
Cons – typically coated in BPA which some research has linked to cancer, requires a lot of energy to make and recycle

Ceramic / Pottery
Pros – is inert (chemicals don’t leach into or from it), lasts a long time if cared for carefully, sometimes repairable
Cons – prone to chipping and cracking, isn’t recyclable

Paper / Card
Pros – recyclable, compostable, from a renewable resource
Cons – easily damaged, heavier to transport than plastic so uses up more fuel, uses a lot of water during processing and recycling, chemicals often used during processing and colouring which leach into compost if composted.

* downcyclable means to remake something into a product of lesser quality than the original. Plastic can’t be recycled into a newer version of its original form, it can only be downcycled into something else like fleeces, clipboards, seating benches. Although downcycling saves the resource in the original item from being lost it isn’t a completely circular systems and does little to prevent new plastic being made to supply the demand for the original item, i.e. water bottle or food packaging.
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