Between a quarter and a third of all domestic waste is packaging: much of this is food packaging. It’s difficult to recycle, too. Plastic which is contaminated with food is hard to reuse. Packets are often made up of several different layers laminated together (e.g. the card, plastic and foil of fruit juice cartons), which makes them impossible to recycle. The packaging industry argues that packaging is necessary for health and hygiene, and has made efforts to make packaging much lighter and thinner (which means that it takes less resources to make and less energy to transport), but the amount of packaged convenience goods on offer is increasing all the time.

Packaging and transport are the two biggest environmental problems with convenience drinks. The two are tied together, as heavier containers take more energy to transport, and even recycling and refilling demand transport for the empties.

Comparing different packaging systems is fantastically difficult. Attempts have been made to compare plastic with glass, or returnable bottles with disposable ones. The results of such studies are very controversial, with those funded by environmental groups typically coming to one conclusion, and those funded by industry coming to the opposite conclusion… The packaging industry claims it is greener now than it was because packets and bottles have become lighter, which means fewer raw materials used and less energy used for transport. However, flimsy, disposable packaging also means lower costs for the producers, as well, and it’s hard to be sure that their motives are entirely altruistic.

Overall, the problem is that packaging is driven by the desire to promote brands and to make money, not by the desire to meet real human needs, or by the desire to protect our environment. Faced with such a system, the best we can do as individuals is to minimise our consumption of packaged products – even healthy, organic ones! – and to use whatever recycling facilities are currently available.

  • Returnable glass bottles seem to be the best environmental option – provided transport distances for this heavy material are not too far. The traditional glass milk bottle, increasingly under threat, is a classic example of a system that works.
  • Glass bottle banks for recycling are now ubiquitous in the UK – and the material collected really is reused. The average glass bottle contains over 25% recycled glass. Green glass bottles manufactured in this country contain at least 60%, and sometimes as much as 90%, recycled glass. In 1997 425,000 tonnes of glass were recycled in the UK – some of this was made back into bottles and jars, but many other products are possible, from fibreglass to building aggregate.
  • Recycling aluminium drinks cans is well established in the UK, and supporting this is a must for green consumers. Twenty recycled aluminium cans can be made with the power it takes to manufacture one brand new one Recycling 1kg of aluminium saves 8kg of bauxite, 4kg of chemicals and 14kwH of electricity.
  • Plastic drinks bottles are also recyclable – and collection services and plastic banks are slowly being setup in the UK. Different kinds of plastic have different properties, and different potential for recycling. Some are made from toxic PVC – best avoided altogether. PET is fully recyclable – from old bottles back to new bottles – and can also be reused to make consumer goods from fleece jackets to furniture.
  • Many drinks cartons – including those containing GM-free soya drinks and fairtrade orange juice – are made from cardboard, plastic, and aluminium foil laminated together. These are at least partially recyclable, but schemes to do so are only just being launched in the UK.
  • Find your nearest recycling facliities with Recycle More’s bank locator.
  • It cannot be emphasised enough that recycling only reduces environmental impacts, it doesn’t remove them. Jokes about ‘I drink as many cans of beer as I can, to help recycling’, are funny, but nothing more. Reusing bottles and jars at home is a more direct way to save resources – this gets round the transport and energy costs of recycling glass and plastic. And the very best way to cut down our impact on the planet, dull though it is, is not to buy convenience packaging at all.

Avoid excess packaging

  • Try to avoid buying lots of packaging – you may be able to get fruit and vegetables packed only in paper bags, rather than on plastic or polystyrene trays.
  • Buy food and drink in recyclable packaging such as glass jars or tin cans
  • If you have storage space, buy dried goods in bulk – this means fewer individual packages.
  • Buy basic ingredients and cook them yourself, rather than small prepackaged portions.
  • Organic fruit and veg in supermarkets is often highly packaged – because it is marketed as high-value luxury produce. Complain about this to your supermarket – or, better still, join a box schemeand have unpackaged fruit, vegetables and other produce delivered straight to your door. The Organic Directory can be searched for box schemes and local delivery services
  • And, of course – re-use or refuse supermarket carrier bags! (Very organised people, who use the same shop or chain regularly, can reuse fruit and veg bags as well.)

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