Glass vs. Plastic Bottles: Is Glass Bad For The Environment and Plastic Effect On The Environment

One million plastic bottles are sold every minute across the world. By 2021, the number of plastic bottles sold is expected to reach 583.3 billion. There's no question that the world has a plastic addiction. Plastics effect on the environment includes polluting our waterways, hurting wildlife, and making its way into our community drinking water. In an effort to move away from plastics, many people are choosing glass bottles. But are they really the better option, is glass bad for the environment? Let's compare glass vs plastic bottles to find out.

Glass vs Plastic Bottles: The Pros and Cons

Glass VS Plastic bottles Pros and Cons glass and plastic bottles and trash on a sandy beach

Plastic: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There’s no doubt that plastic is convenient and inexpensive. Unlike with glass, there’s no need to worry about the bottle breaking. Plastic is also lightweight, which makes it easy to toss into a backpack before heading out for the day.

If it weren’t for its detrimental impact on the environment, plastic would be a clear winner in the bottle war. 

Plastic Bottles and Your Health

A big concern with plastic bottles is their health effects. For starters, bottled water often contains microplastics. 

Most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET. Some research suggests that PET may be a hormone disruptor

Other plastic bottles contain BPA, which has been banned in many countries because of its toxicity. BPA has been linked to reproductive issues, heart complications, cancer, and other health issues.

Plastic Effect on the Environment

Plastic effect on the environment appears in many ways. The two biggest concerns are:

  • No one really knows how long it takes plastic to break down, but it’s believed to take hundreds or thousands of years.
  • Plastic releases toxins and fragments during photodecomposition. These pollute the soil and water.

Plastic and the Ocean

Plastic bottles often find their way into oceans, where they’re ingested by marine life. Plastic fragments are consumed by tiny plankton and ingested whole by larger marine animals.

There are an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, and they threaten more than 700 marine species. 

These bottles can also act as transportation devices for invasive species who hitch a ride and make their way onto shore. It’s not uncommon for tubeworms, barnacles, and algae to colonize plastic bottles.

But it’s not just oceans that plastic is polluting. As bottles break down, little by little, they disintegrate into smaller pieces that can be even more hazardous than their original form. In a water quality study, 83% of testing sites in five continents were contaminated with plastic fiber.

Plastic and Oil

Another problem with plastic bottles is how they’re made. About 8% of the world’s oil production is used for plastic production. The need for petroleum to make plastic contributes to fracking and oil drilling, which makes it harder to move away from these environmentally damaging practices.

Plastics are Everywhere

Plastic debris is found everywhere in the world, from the Arctic all the way to Antarctica. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of plastic bottles are recycled. Actually according to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018, out of the 35.7 million tons of plastic generated in the united states, only 8.5% was recycled. Instead, they wind up littering national parks, polluting waterways, clogging drains, and piling up in oceans. Even Mount Everest isn’t safe from plastic bottle pollution.

While plastic bottles are usually recyclable, most aren’t recycled. They wind up as litter or tossed into landfills where they sit for hundreds or thousands of years.

Are There Any Benefits to Plastic Bottles?

Plastics are lightweight, durable, and easy to carry around. Now that we understand more about the harmful effects of plastic bottles on the environment, work is being done to develop better and more environmentally friendly plastics.

Bioplastic

As its name suggests, bioplastics are made from organic materials, like corn starch. They often contain polylactic acid (PLA), which is similar to polypropylene in polyethylene. It looks like regular plastic, but it doesn’t have the same chemical makeup. 

Bioplastics are designed to break down in just a few weeks and without leeching the same harmful toxins that conventional plastics release. 

With that said, bioplastics still need to be discarded properly. Even these bottles will release methane when tossed in a landfill. They should be brought to a commercial composting facility so that it can be broken down in a managed environment using microbes.

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Glass: Is it Really the Better Option?

Although plastic alternatives are available, the jury is still out on whether these materials are much better than regular plastic.

Glass has always been touted as the better option for bottles from both an environmental and health standpoint. But is it really the better option?

Is Glass Bad for the Environment?

Glass tends to be viewed as the more environmentally friendly option for bottles, and in some ways, it is. There are many reasons why glass has less of an environmental impact:

  • Glass is not only recyclable, but it can also continue to be recycled without hurting its quality. 
  • Glass is made from organic materials, like sand, limestone, and soda ash.
  • Because it can be recycled over and over again, glass helps reduce emissions and limits the use of raw materials.

That being said, the environmental impact that glass has on the environment heavily relies on glass containers being recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12.3 million tons of glass was produced in 2018.  Of that only 31.3% was actually recycled. When left in a landfill, glass can take one million years to decompose. 

Making new glass can be hard on the environment because it requires a great deal of emissions not only to obtain organic materials but to transport and manufacture the new glass. Using recycled glass can help reduce this impact.

Glass and Your Health

Another advantage of glass is that, unlike plastic, it doesn’t alter or absorb flavors. It won’t leech substances into your food or drink either.

With plastic, there are concerns that BPA and phthalates may make their way into whatever is stored in the bottles, potentially causing health problems in the future.

The Downside of Glass Bottles

The biggest concern with glass, without considering the environmental impact, is its weight and fragility. Glass is heavier than plastic, and it can easily shatter if you drop it or it bumps into something. Due to its heavier weight, glass is more expensive and causes more emissions to transport and additional packaging is needed to prevent shattering. That makes glass a less attractive option to manufacturers, but it also increases the prices.

Despite this, the demand for glass is growing. Higher demand for this material also means higher demand for the organic materials used to make it. The world uses about 50 billion tons of sand every year, and much of this sand is harvested from riverbeds and seabeds.  That is twice the amount produced by every river in the world yearly. Sand harvesting disrupts the ecosystems and the landscape on the shore.  Almost 90% of the world's beaches have shrunk since 2008, averaging a 40-meter decline in size.   

If this trend continues, about 70% of Southern California's beautiful beaches could be completely gone by 2100.

So, Which One is Better: Glass or Plastic?

Glass and plastic have their benefits and drawbacks. Overall, glass does have an edge for a few reasons:

  • It can be recycled multiple times without losing quality.
  • It doesn’t leech toxic materials into food or the environment
  • It’s made with organic material (as long as that organic material remains available)

It’s important to make sure that you recycle glass bottles or reuse them for other purposes. If you choose manufacturers that use recycled glass, you’re doing your part to reduce emissions.

Ultimately, if care is taken to recycle either of these materials, many of the environmental concerns evaporate. 

Whichever material you choose in the glass vs plastic bottles debate, make sure that it’s recyclable and that you do your part to recycle when you’re done using your bottles.