Single use glass under fire in decarbonisation study

According to a new report by Zero Waste Europe, there is a pressing need to significantly decrease the demand for single-use beverage packaging on account of the substantial contribution of glass, plastic, and aluminum drinks products to climate change. 

Glass bottle manufactureAmong these materials, glass emerges as the largest contributor, prompting calls for accelerated improvements to reuse systems and infrastructure, which are better suited to glass’ heavier weight.

Eunomia says that the continued production of single-use glass beverages will be ‘increasingly difficult to justify’, given that recycled glass bottles still require 75% of the energy needed to produce new ones. In contrast, aluminum cans only require 10% of the energy for their production.

The report builds upon Eunomia’s previous investigation into materials decarbonisation pathways - “Is Net Zero Enough for the Material Production Sector?” - this time shifting from raw materials and towards products. It cautions that even significant decarbonization efforts within the sector would be inadequate to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Aline Maigret, Head of Policy at Zero Waste Europe, said: “This research shows the EU packaging policy is ill-equipped to deliver on the Net Zero agenda. Overall material use must be reduced in all packaging categories, and this speaks in favour of ambitious prevention and reuse targets.”

“To add to this, glass’ incredibly high carbon footprint makes it unsuitable for single-use applications. The new PPWR should plan a material transition away from single-use in general, but with a particular focus on glass and PET".

Report findings

Zero Waste Europe commissioned Eunomia Research & Consulting to investigate pathways to net zero for single-use aluminum, PET (plastic), and glass products used in EU drinks packaging.

According to the report, all three materials are projected to exceed their allocated carbon budget, which represents the maximum greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions they can emit while remaining within the 1.5°C warming limit – before attaining net zero emissions by 2050. Among these materials, single-use glass emerges as the largest contributor, followed by PET and then aluminum.

Collectively, the three materials are expected to surpass the allocated emissions budget by +150 per cent, with glass and PET sitting at +200 per cent and +150 per cent respectively, whereas aluminium's ‘budget overshot’ is estimated to be around 50 per cent.

The report concludes that GHG emissions per unit of packaging are consistently three to four times higher for glass bottles than aluminium or PET, throughout the pathway to net zero.

The main challenges identified as risks to meeting net zero by 2050 – by material – are as follows:

  • Aluminium: Transitioning the entire smelting capacity to run on green energy will necessitate substantial investment.
  • PET: A fundamental shift in the value chain to bio-based feedstock is necessary, but present technical hurdles and potential conflicts within the industry.
  • Glass: Electrifying gas furnaces will require a costly and complete infrastructure upgrade, and will continue to have high energy consumption.

The report recommends prioritising investment in technology, developing reuse systems, enhanced recycling, and reducing demand for aluminium, PET and glass materials, in order to help the beverage container industry to achieve net zero in line with the 1.5 oC Paris Agreement target.

Single use glass unsustainable

Simon Hann, Principal Consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting and lead report author said: “It is crucial that we prioritise long-term decision-making and acknowledge that the process of achieving Net Zero is as significant as the timing. Our study highlights the effectiveness of employing a carbon budgeting methodology to identify the most viable approaches for attaining this goal.”

“When examining beverage containers, it becomes evident that we need to adopt a more strategic approach to decision-making that takes into account future implications. Our findings indicate that justifying the continued use of single-use glass, in particular, will become progressively more difficult, despite the obstacles faced by alternative materials.” 

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