Greener than What?: the shortfalls of comparing milk packaging options within the disposability paradigm
SPOTTED: this sign in a Chch grocery store yesterday, giving us a confused mixture of feels: pleased and disappointed. We’re pleased that this conversation is being had, but disappointed at how it’s communicated here.
We want to start by saying that we agree with the general intent behind this sign insofar as we do not necessarily support simply replacing plastic packaging as we currently use it with glass, paper or compostables (particularly for household staples like milk) because this goes against a key element of zero waste philosophy: resource efficiency. Continuing down the disposability route, regardless of the material, is resource and energy intensive. Earlier this year we wrote a pretty extensive post on glass packaging in NZ, outlining our position given the NZ situation – so check that for our full, reasoned perspective.
So, given the above, we are glad to see this conversation coming up in public spaces like this store, and it helps to communicate too why the zero waste approach and the plastic-free approach are not always the same. The unbridled nostalgia for glass and brown paper bags is slightly misplaced in our modern world, which faces a much larger population than in the era when brown paper bags and glass packaging were the norm. Annually we now consume natural resources far faster than the earth’s capacity to renew those resources within the year, throwing into question the entire concept of disposability.
Nevertheless, having said the above, we found this sign oversimplistic and potentially confusing, and a distraction from the fundamental issue that our current approach to packaging is unsustainable. While probably unintentional, the sign encourages the reader to think “oh, so plastic bottles are the best then, I’ll just carry on as normal”. Unfortunately, we don’t think that we can carry on as normal.
First, the sign’s analysis presumes that we would use glass packaging in the same way as we use plastic packaging (i.e. used once and then discarded into a bin or recycled). However, this method for packaging is reaching its sustainable limits, regardless of whether the material is glass or plastic. For the record, we don’t agree with using glass bottles for milk in this way and we consider companies that do this to be greenwashing and taking advantage of current anti-plastic sentiment. HOWEVER, we don’t consider milk in “recyclable” plastic bottles to be ideal either. Rather, we support the zero waste approach, which moves up the waste hierarchy away from recycle towards reuse, which would involve refillable glass bottles for milk in small geographical loops where transportation is reduced. This is what we traditionally did in NZ (and still do in some parts of the country, most notably Nelson and increasingly Southland). In fact, this sign probably appeared in this store following the demise of Happy Cow Milk Co, which was providing milk in reusable glass bottles throughout Chch; no doubt customers had gotten used to this system and were hoping another business would adopt the same approach and were asking about it. Unfortunately, the sign doesn’t include this type of glass bottle reuse system in its analysis, but it should because reuse systems can reduce packaging’s energy footprint substantially. If the bottle is glass and the system reuses it enough times to break even with the energy of producing/recycling a plastic bottle, you can then justify tapping into glass’ other benefits, which leads to the second point…
The sign assesses the greenness of the packaging material through the lens of a life cycle energy analysis (the energy impact of producing and recycling the packaging type), but omits other environmental considerations, particularly the fact that what is being compared here is a non-toxic, inert, infinitely recyclable material (glass) and a toxic material that is not infinitely recyclable (plastic). Glass, in theory, can go around the system endlessly AND a bottle can be recycled back into another bottle. If glass leaks into the environment, it does less long-term damage. Plastic is not infinitely recyclable and is made from a non-renewable resource. Milk bottles are not turned back into other milk bottles, they’re downcycled into other materials which, when they break, are generally not recycled. Plastic is toxic in the natural environment, and a high percentage of plastic escapes collection systems (though we imagine that recovery rates for plastic milk bottles are probably pretty high given milk’s generally consumed at home).
Third, lifecycle analyses are notoriously complex because of the high degree of variability across different contexts (distances from raw materials markets, on-shore processors, energy sources for manufacturing/recycling plants, distance from recycling markets, distance from distribution centre for packaged product etc.). What’s more, the figures here are taken from one expert alone and though we aren’t questioning the figures, methodology, or the scientist, the presentation of this information, with the exclamatory “Science!” implies the issue is clear cut, but it’s not really clear cut…
That leads to the fourth issue: this chart lacks context, and context in waste conversations is critical in NZ. The sign could have been much more effective in communicating its message had it noted that NO glass bottles are recycled back into bottles in Chch, they’re all smashed and turned into roads (i.e. downcycled – losing the benefit of infinite recyclability), making the lifecycle analysis for glass packaging even worse and again indicating that we need to stop thinking of packaging in this linear dispose framework and instead look at reuse/refill systems.
By the same token, not all plastic recycling is the same. In this store there were milk bottles made of different kinds of plastic. Some were made of HDPE (plastic type 2), which is the plastic most commonly used for milk bottles in NZ. There is local capacity to recycle HDPE, though some is still sent overseas (carbon footprint). Wherever they go, the bottles aren’t turned into other bottles, they’re downcycled. So, every time we want a new milk bottle we still need new plastic (whereas we can purchase glass bottles containing recycled content in NZ, as we have an onshore glass recycler in Auckland). Some milk bottles in this store were PET (type 1) plastic, which is the easiest plastic to recycle. There is one company in NZ (Flight Plastics in Lower Hutt) that recycles PET back into new food packaging (note, this requires an internal layer of virgin plastic – not a renewable resource – for food safety reasons). Flight is pretty effective and can actually put that recycled PET (rPET) back through the system over and over, which is great for overall energy reduction/lifecycle analysis (though maintaining the product’s integrity does require some new plastic – recycled content is about 60-88%). This improved recyclability could make PET a better choice for milk bottles BUT, again context is relevant here because Chch’s PET recycling (and that of a lot of other parts of New Zealand too) does not get sent to Flight, it gets sent overseas (carbon footprint). Unfortunately, one of the main things PET gets recycled into offshore is synthetic fabric, and that means plastic microfibres in the waterways…
What does ‘greener packaging’ even mean in the context of an unsustainable packaging system?
Basically, comparing the overall environmental impact of different kinds of disposable packaging is very complicated and cannot be neatly summarised on an A4 chart that focuses on energy production alone based on a series of assumptions that vary even within a small country like NZ with a fragmented, inconsistent recycling system, heavily dependent on imported inputs and recycling export markets. Our main beef here is that we disagree with using this partial analysis to justify continuing the business-as-usual approach to packaging or implying that science can declare this approach more green, when really it’s a different shade of grey.
Ultimately, we need to devise new ways of getting products to consumers, with a greater emphasis on refill/reuse systems, which not only produce fewer carbon/emissions and waste, but can be cheaper for businesses too. Glass is a good medium for this (some countries do also use high quality plastic bottles in reuse systems), provided the geographic circuit the product is travelling is not huge. This requires us to rethink the way we distribute goods in this country to keep transport distances shorter and more local. Milk is an excellent candidate for this system because we’re a dairy producing nation where dairy farms are always nearby. We could also be installing milk vending machines into supermarkets/public places around NZ and filling those machines up from milk trucks rather than carting bottles around.
While all this might sound idealistic and unrealistic, it’s actually not but it does require openness to change. Many countries are talking about refill and reuse systems for milk and other products and are instituting them already, as are parts of NZ (again, Nelson has it sorted). Furthermore, these concepts are a part of the circular economy philosophy – a philosophy that is increasingly accepted as “inevitable“. Shifting towards refill systems is also one of the four key principles/solutions of the Plastic-Free NZ Action Plan. In New Zealand, we have regulatory tools available to assist with reuse system logistics. For example, instituting a bottle deposit system under the Waste Minimisation Act would improve recovery rates for glass bottles and could thus help facilitate a coordinated glass bottle reuse system, if this were planned for.
The alternative – continuing with our linear, disposal-oriented economy, producing large quantities of waste from packaging everyday household items in a toxic material derived from a non-renewable resource that is not infinitely recyclable – is not only unambitious, it’s unsustainable and expensive.