The year of glass. Is it time to ditch plastic?
Perhaps because it is transparent, we are not fully aware of the omnipresence of glass. Whether on the screen of the cell phone or the computer, in the glass of breakfast or in the window through which the light enters, the reader of this column will find glass around him.
Manufactured for at least 4,500 years –there are archaeological finds of vessels and necklaces in ancient Egypt–, this everyday material is once again in the news in the 21st century: to achieve its objectives for sustainable development, the United Nations decreed 2022 as the International Year of Glass. According to the curious resolution, the member countries, including Argentina, undertake to celebrate various activities this year “to highlight the technological, economic, cultural and environmental importance of this material in our societies.”
That we are beginning to go through the year of glass would not have been possible without the invaluable help of plastic. Or, better said, the pollution crisis caused by its excessive use. More resistant, practical and economical, plastic containers have replaced glass containers in recent decades, but at a high environmental cost. “The environmental crisis that we are experiencing due to the so-called single-use plastics is very serious. It is estimated that 13 million tons of plastic are thrown into the sea, which is equivalent to unloading a garbage truck per minute”, illustrates Ornella Basilotta, designer of Fracking Design, an enterprise that manufactures accessories with the plastic waste discarded by oil companies in Vaca Muerta and founder of @laschicasdelplaneta.
Along the same lines, Tomás Kelly, head of operations at Agua Local, a sustainable startup for filtering, purifying and remineralizing water in reusable glass bottles, is gaining ground in restaurants in Argentina and the region. “Everywhere you look, there is plastic on the floor. It is not necessary to know about the garbage islands in the Pacific, or the catastrophic numbers of contamination: it is next to us and it is everyone’s responsibility. So welcome to think of new forms of consumption, “says the entrepreneur in dialogue with the nation. And he adds: “Glass, in a reusable format, as part of a circular economy, is a great ally.”
According to the UN itself, glass can serve as an alternative to plastics and “has the potential to contribute to the implementation of sustainable production and consumption patterns.” However, changing consumer habits will not exactly be blowing and making bottles. In fact, defenders of plastic and its conveniences point out that the use of glass also hides an important environmental footprint.
So which one is friendlier to the planet? The glass bottle or the plastic one? Although glass has a better press, at least among zero waste consumers, the truth is that the choice is not so obvious in strictly environmental terms. First of all, thousands of tons of sand are required to make glass, a non-renewable material that is extracted from quarries and the seabed, causing a serious impact on these ecosystems. As for its production at high temperatures, it demands more energy than plastic, which translates into more CO2 emissions. The same happens with transport: being heavier, the distribution of glass bottles generates a higher carbon footprint.
On the benefits side, we must highlight a pioneering Argentine custom of the circular economy: the high returnability of the packaging, which allows a bottle of beer, for example, to be reused about 30 times before being 100% recycled without lose their property. This last characteristic distinguishes it from plastic, which can only be recycled a few times because it later reduces in quality until it ends up in the garbage. Another advantage noted by glass lovers is that, being non-porous, it keeps the flavor of its content intact and does not release microplastic particles. As for recycling figures, official data in Argentina is conspicuous by its absence, but if we look at what happens in the United States, 33% of glass is recycled, vs. just 9% of plastic.
“Glass is a better alternative, especially to replace single-use plastics, such as disposable cups or bottles. Being returnable and reusable means that in the long run its environmental footprint is reduced”, explains Basilotta. And in this international year of glass, he concludes: “The important thing is to be responsible consumers and add conscious habits, without generating waste beyond the material.”