Plastic vs. Glass: Which One is Better? Title graphic

December 23, 2019

By: Laura J. Pallotta

You’re responsible. You really want to help reduce your footprint on the planet. You do your fair share to recycle everything you’re allowed to put in the recycle bin in your neighborhood.

But it still seems like not enough is being done to reduce the human impact on our environment. You’ve seen videos of oil spills causing real harm to animals and ocean creatures stuck inside plastic bottles or other plastic containers.

Those scenes are disturbing and pull on our heart strings. We don’t want to harm animals or see them suffer. And we don’t want landfills to fill up with junk.

I completely agree that those results are not what we are aiming for, as caretakers of this beautiful planet.

We wouldn’t be good stewards of the amazing gift we’ve been given in our natural resources and beautiful living planet if we didn’t care about the sea life, the beaches, the oil reserves, quality ground water and the quality of life we’re passing down to future generations.

So, let’s start this discussion with the general understanding that the large majority of people do care about the environment and our planet in general.

Debunking Some Glass and Plastic Packaging Myths

People everywhere seem to have made up their minds that glass is the way to go.

I don’t think I even make it through one day without hearing about how awful plastic is for our planet and how choosing glass is a better option.

If you must choose between glass containers and plastic containers, green marketers everywhere are shouting about the benefits of glass.

And glass does have certain environmental benefits.

Myth 1: If I put my glass in the recycle bin, it will be recycled.

The most impactful and widely-known benefit is that glass can be recycled an infinite number of times without losing integrity.

Glass jars can be recycled into more glass jars or bottles.

And that’s a really exciting and attractive benefit.

But did you know that colored glass has to be recycled with the same color of glass? You can’t recycle brown beer bottles with green beer bottles or clear bottles or jars.

What this means is that only manufacturers that are set up to accept colored glass can process it. And they will only do that if they have a buyer for the resulting recycled material, called cullet, that’s close to the recycling plant because glass is heavy and costs a lot to transport.

So, even though you may be doing your part to put all your wine and beer bottles and pickle jars into the recycle bin, thinking you’re saving the planet. Your area may not even have a manufacturer that accepts all the colored glass.

If that’s the case, your glass is going to be disposed of instead of recycled.

It will also be disposed if it has high levels of contaminants.

Contaminants are everything from food particles to non-recyclable items like light bulbs, batteries and non-recyclable glass.

If you’re interested in learning more about how the system of glass recycling works in the USA and what doesn’t really work, this article is a good starting point.

And here’s a short informative video explaining the glass recycling process from beginning to end. It’s pretty cool to watch.

That’s not to say that plastic is a clear winner in this question of whether it all gets recycled. In fact, it’s likely that even less of the plastic you place in the recycle bin gets recycled because most plastic recycling facilities are only set up to accept certain types of containers and plastics.

For example, according to SWACO, most plastic recycling facilities are set up to accept plastic bottles and jugs only.

They further define a plastic bottle or jug to mean anything that has a neck that’s smaller than the base.

This means you can recycle plastic shampoo bottles, milk jugs, and laundry detergent containers, but not necessarily plastic items like food prep containers or yogurt containers, even if they have the appropriate recycle symbol on the bottom.

To learn whether your plastic items are recyclable, I encourage you to do some research. And the SWACO website is a great place to start. It has a lot of helpful resources and information on what can be recycled and where to take specific recyclable items that cannot be disposed in the trash or recycling bins.

So even though both glass and plastic are highly recyclable, they both have their limitations in availability of facilities to handle properly and specific characteristics required to make them recyclable.

No winner yet in this showdown. So let’s keep going.

Myth 2: Plastic vs glass: It’s all recyclable.

You likely already know that certain plastics aren’t recyclable. Things like kids’ toys, plastic film in packaging and plastics with a code that isn’t accepted in your area cannot be recycled (or not in your area).

But, did you know that some glass isn’t recyclable either?

High heat glass such as glass bakeware, and treated glass like windows and mirrors are NOT recyclable.

Also, your neighborhood is not likely to be set up to accept large glass items like vases or household décor. But you can definitely recycle glass bottles and jars.

So don’t throw your old glass bakeware dishes, décor or mirrors in the recycling bin!

It’s considered a contaminant to the whole recycling process because glass bakeware has been produced with an entirely different process than glass bottles and jars in order to withstand the high heat of an oven.

When you’re finished with old glass bakeware, it’s best to pass them on to other family members who may want or need them or simply donate them to charity if they’re still in good shape.

Wondering what you should do with them if they’re not good enough to donate?

You guessed it. Unfortunately, they go into the trash.

Surprised?

Well, that’s exactly where that bakeware ends up if it’s placed in the recycle bin. It’s not recyclable.

If you’re counting on making a big planet impact by replacing your plastic bottles with glass bottles, you’re out of luck.

Both are equally recyclable and accepted in many neighborhood recycling programs. You just need to be sure to place your recyclables in the recycle bin, whether glass or plastic.

Your best bet to minimize waste in this area is to not overbuy, use the ones you have as long as you can, and keep them in great shape so they can be passed to someone else when you decide to purchase new items.

Windows and mirrors should be disposed of safely. But they eventually end up in the trash because they’re treated. They cannot be recycled unless you have a specific window and mirror recycling center nearby.

And they cannot go in the recycle bin. You have to take them to a facility designed to handle those materials.

Thank goodness windows and mirrors last a very long time, so it’s a pretty rare occasion when you’ll need to get rid of them.

That’s a great way to reduce waste in anything.

Use it for as long as you can!

You probably already know that not all plastic is recyclable. This has been drilled into us by the marketing everywhere promoting glass over plastic for everything these days.

And it’s true. Only certain plastics are recyclable.

And you do still have to be aware of the shape of the container for recyclability of plastics and the availability of recycling certain materials in your area.

Plastics in the shape of bottles and jars are widely recyclable and some other plastics are recyclable in certain neighborhood pickup programs if specified as such in that program.

So, is there a winner in the category of whether all the material is recyclable?

I would personally say that glass has a bit of an edge in this category. And the only reason is that the chemical breakdown of glass reverts back to mostly naturally occurring elements of the planet, whereas plastic is comprised of mostly man-made material, permanently altered so it never reverts back to original planetary elements.

But take a look at this chart and you’ll see that glass is not a clear winner in its recyclability as compared to plastic:

Infographic of recyclability of household plastic vs glass

Myth 3: Plastic vs glass: Recycling glass saves more energy than recycling plastic.

It’s true that recycling glass saves energy.

In fact, the energy savings created when recycling glass is about 1/3 the cost of producing glass from raw materials.

But did you know that is about the same as the energy savings for recycling plastic?

And the energy savings for recycling glass is further reduced when it needs to be shipped to buyers, who take the resulting cullet and melt it down to produce more glass containers.

Did I mention how expensive it is to transport glass? And how energy inefficient?

Plastic is lightweight and more energy efficient to transport than glass.

Here’s a short article by the US EPA discussing how recycling saves energy. Within that article they’ve developed a great tool for estimating how much energy you could save by recycling certain household items.

I used the tool myself and was pleasantly surprised to learn that recycling one 20 oz. plastic bottle saves about the same amount of energy as recycling one 12 oz glass bottle.

That’s pretty significant information, if you ask me. I certainly haven’t heard of such a comparison in the media or all the marketing that gets the most attention.

Oh, by the way, if you’re really interested in all things recycling, there’s a great resource page on the EPA’s website that will lead you to all kinds of useful information. You can find that here.

So who wins the race in saving energy?

Neither glass nor plastic. It’s an even toss-up. But if one had to be the winner, it would be plastic, by a hair, because it doesn’t cost as much to transport once it’s made into recycled material.

Myth 4: Plastic vs glass: Glass is safer than plastic.

I know what you’re going to say. Plastic has chemicals. Chemicals harm your health. Therefore, glass is safer than plastic.

That’s certainly what all the fuss in marketing seems to express.

Let’s explore this a little more.

First, let’s do a simple Google search on “does glass contain any harmful chemicals”.

You’ll see multiple examples of studies that have found lead and cadmium in drinking glasses and glass bottles, particularly the ones tinted with color or with ornamental design, but even in undersigned glasses to ensure the ability to withstand heat and cold properly:

https://www.siliconrepublic.com/innovation/toxins-drinking-glasses

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171106100513.htm

https://annshippymd.com/2018/05/10/dont-raise-glass-may-toxic/

https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2019-06-28/study-glass-alcohol-bottles-contain-harmful-levels-of-lead-cadmium

Lead and cadmium poisoning are no joking matter.

Here’s a thorough article on cadmium poisoning, if you’re interested.

But my point isn’t to scare you away from using drinking glasses. We’ve been using them forever, and you haven’t experienced any poisoning symptoms right?

My point is just to state that making a choice between plastic and glass chemical safety without understanding both sides of the argument is uninformed at best. You can’t just research one of them and decide the other one is the better option without learning about both options.

Ok, now that we know that glass isn’t necessarily 100% safe, chemically speaking, what do we know about plastic and its chemical safety?

Well, there are many different types of plastic. And we can’t cover them all in this article, so we’ll focus on the 2 most widely used plastics in the food and beverage industry: PET and HDPE

These 2 plastics comprise the majority of the industry for the most obvious reasons:

  1. They hold their shape and stand up to every day use
  2. They are very low in toxins
  3. They are inexpensive to produce and recycle
  4. They can be molded into various forms
  5. They are low in gas permeability so they keep foods fresh

There are surely more reasons than these, but this is a good list of attributes that shows why so many manufacturers use these plastics.

And let’s not forget that both PET and HDPE contain no BPA. This is a required standard for plastic made in the USA. Any time you see the recycle symbol numbers 1 or 2, you can be assured there is no BPA.

This is the standard for most household plastics and all food-containing plastics.

BPA or bisphenol A is an organic chemical compound used in making plastics. BPA has gotten enough press with all its touted potential dangers. We’re not going to cover that here.

But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that no BPA means no danger or health risk in plastics. Or even that no lead or cadmium in glass means no health risk. There will always be dangers all around us, and these are good reminders to be moderate in everything we do so that we don’t have overexposure to any one thing.

It’s a good thing when we find out about a new danger to avoid. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll ever know of all the potential dangers. Accept that dangers are a part of life, make the best choices with the information you have available, do your own research instead of accepting at face value the information spread by marketers and move on.

Based on my research in writing this article, neither glass nor plastic rises to the top as a winner in the question of safety from a chemical makeup standpoint.

I accept that there are some chemicals in glass that may not be ideal to ingest and there may be chemicals in plastic that we don’t even know yet are dangerous to ingest.

And you certainly don’t want to heat your food in plastic containers, whether there’s BPA or not. Heating the containers in a microwave changes the chemical composition just enough to make it questionable whether it’s safe. (Though, again, we can always consider moderation as an answer to avoid potential harm. Anything you do exclusively will have the long-term potential for causing harm.)

But there is one safety aspect about plastic that glass bottles and jars just can’t compete with…

Glass breaks!

That’s right. You love the look and feel of a nice glass soap bottle at your kitchen sink…until you drop it on the edge of your beautiful granite countertop and either crack the granite or break the bottle.

Cracking the granite is going to cost you thousands of dollars to fix, and breaking the bottle is likely to result in bodily harm, or at least an unsafe mess to clean up.

How safe is it to pick up a smooth glass bottle with slippery wet hands?

What about in the shower?

Is that a great place to have a heavy, smooth, slippery glass object? I think not.

If the glass has been treated to withstand breakage, it’s likely not recyclable and you’ve lost all the benefit you thought you were gaining by using glass in the first place.

Glass bottles are beautiful. But I dropped one in the shower once. In the split second of time it took me to watch that bottle drop to the floor of the shower, dread and fear overtook me with the thought of broken toes, broken tiles or a shower pan filled with glass all around my bare feet.

I didn’t have enough time to react, move my feet out of the way or catch the slippery bottle.

I was lucky. It landed safely on the floor of the shower without shattering, landing on my foot or breaking anything.

But I would be remiss to think this would ever be a good situation to try again. Lesson learned in my book.

And so goes the lesson for several uses of household products. Plastic is just a safer material for consumers to handle on a regular basis.

When it comes to chemical safety, neither glass or plastic appears to be better. But when it comes to physical safety of you, your children, your elderly parents and your guests, there is only one winner.

Plastic bottles cannot be outshined by glass in the safety category.

Bringing it All Together

So, what’s the real winner in the showdown?

Well, as many things in life, the answer is: it depends.

It depends what the application is, how frequently you use it, whether it will be ingested or not, how diverse your recycling program is in your neighborhood, how well you understand what can and cannot be recycled, and many other considerations.

But, the clear message I’m trying to convey is that sometimes plastic really is the winner in the plastic vs. glass competition.

There’s always more that can be done to help the environment. And it’s a good thing that we all want to find ways to make less negative impact on our lovely planet.

But I find there’s no one way to solve any problem as large as a planet pollution problem.

If we want to see less plastic in the ocean, then we need to put every appropriate plastic in the recycle bin. And we need to keep the non-recyclable items out of the recycle bin.

The biggest impact you can make is to learn about your options and make the best choices with all the information available to you.

Find out what items can be recycled in your neighborhood and recycle those items. Don’t make purchases that will go to waste, and any time you hear about another enemy of the planet, do your research and make up your own mind. Use legitimate resources too, not just opinion pieces.

When you do that, you’ll be making an impact on your world, reducing your footprint and remaining informed of the facts so you can act on them.

But I want to hear from you.

What do you prefer for household products, glass or plastic bottles? And why?

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