With packaging contributing 50% to municipal
solid waste by volume, determining the amount of energy and environmental
impacts for packaging is important. Tellus Institute assessed
plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, and steel1. Each packaging type
was measured by environmental impact of production and the environmental
impact of disposal.
To measure the impact of each packaging material,
Tellus used a monetary scale. Environmental impact costs were
represented by the price society is willing to spend to prevent
pollutants from entering the environment. These prices are not
the actual price to sustain our environment, but they are useful
For each material, Tellus included all direct
energy use and controlled emissions. They also included all indirect
energy and controlled emissions within a one step range. As an
example, the electricity used in production was included, as was
the coal to produce the electricity. However, the resources used
to mine and process coal were excluded as they are outside of
the one step range.
||Milk jugs, liquid detergent bottles, grocery bags
||Plastic films (bread bags, produce bags,
||Plastic lids, packaging, automotive, appliances,
||Styrofoam, cold food containers, insulation,
disposable plates, cutlery, automotive parts, toys, housewares,
appliance parts, wall tiles, radio, TV housings, furniture,
||Construction piping, plastic bottles,
upholstery, flooring, wall coverings, sidings
Table 1 - $/ ton is the environmental impact cost of manufacturing
each plastic. HDPE, LDPE, PP, and PS have roughly the same
environmental impact rating. PETE is about twice as high as
these four. PVC is nearly six times higher than PETE primarily
because of carcinogenic emissions. The environmental cost
of disposal is $4 per ton excluding PETE, which is $5 per
ton. Recycling was excluded from analyzing plastic because
only 1.8% of packaging plastic is recycled.
Recycling some plastics might be worse than
throwing them out. Though there is no decisive research on the
environmental impacts of recycling plastic, relating the economic
cost of disposal to recycling shows that the cost to recycle plastic
is $360 per ton while normal disposal cost is $250 per ton. The
difference is mostly caused by recycling collection trucks. Unlike
garbage trucks, recycling collection trucks don't compact their
load. Because light plastics fill up a lot of space, recycling
collection trucks end up consuming a lot of fuel for small quantities
of plastic, increasing the environmental impact.
For paperboard packaging, five different
kinds were assessed. Each has the same environmental disposal
cost, $2 per ton. The environmental cost of production of bleached
paperboard, as shown in Figure 1, is highest at $330 per ton while
corrugating medium is the lowest at $80 per ton. The other three
are similar, about $270 per ton.
Recycling does decrease the environmental
cost for unbleached coated boxboard and linerboard in half, to
$135 per ton. The cost of corrugating medium increases through
recycling to $183 per ton.
Though recycling paperboard products decreases
the environmental cost of manufacture, waterborne emissions increase.
Recycling paper products causes the wood fibers to break. As the
fibers break and become smaller, they become harder to catch and
escape into the water stream. Harmful metals in ink also escape
through the pulping process. Although waterborne waste increases,
recycling does reduce the overall environmental cost.
Glass has the smallest environmental cost
per unit weight, $85 per ton for virgin materials and $55 per
ton for recycled. Though glass has the lowest environmental cost
per ton, glass requires greater quantities to be an effective
packaging material. If more material is used, then the environmental
cost is higher. To demonstrate this, ILEA used data for half gallon
juice containers provided by Tellus. A glass juice container has
an environmental impact of 0.19 cents per unit. Recycled glass
is at 0.15 cents. Paperboard carton runs at 0.06 cents per unit.
Though glass has the lowest environmental impact by ton, in real
world applications it has a higher environmental impact.
Virgin aluminum has an environmental cost
of $1,900 per ton. Recycling is very effective for aluminum, eliminating
96% of the energy used to produce a ton of new sheet stock. The
environmental cost of recycled aluminum is $310 per ton. The substantial
decrease is due to eliminating the mining and smelting process.
The environmental cost of disposal is $5 per ton for both recycled
and virgin feedstock.
Steel is coated with tin and used to make
cans. Its environmental cost is $230 per ton. Recycling has little
effect on the environmental impact of steel manufacture. Though
mining is eliminated, remanufacturing steel requires substantial
amounts of energy. The difference reduces the environmental cost
by only $10 per ton. For steel the environmental cost of disposal
is $2 per ton.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from
this study. First considering that the environmental cost of production
contributes 99% of the environmental harm, reducing disposal isn't
going to help as much as cutting production. The problem of packaging
facing the environment is not a problem related to disposal. It
is a problem of production, which directly relates to consumption.
The solution according to the Tellus scale isn't a matter of improving
recycling or disposal rates, but consuming less.
When it comes to deciding which product to
consume, PETE (1), PVC (3), and virgin aluminum should be avoided.
Each has a very high environmental cost. Second, though glass
appears to be an excellent packaging material (when compared on
a cost per ton basis) because glass requires higher volumes for
effective packaging, it actually has a higher environmental impact
per use than paper and plastic. Hence glass should be avoided
when possible. Third, recycling aluminum is exceptionally beneficial.
Recycled aluminum, plastic, and paper have relatively similar
environmental costs on a per ton basis. Between these three, the
product with the least packaging is preferred.
1 Tellus Institute. Tellus Packaging Study.
Boston: Tellus Institute of Resource and Environmental Strategies,
2 SPI is the Society of the Plastics Industry. SPI numbers are
found printed on most plastic containers inside the familiar,
three-arrow recycle symbol.