While hardly a new trend, the news that a big name retailer has decided to switch a product’s packaging away from glass and into plastic could cause some concern for the sector. In May, Asda repackaged a range of salad dressings from glass to PET in a move that was said to improve the product’s environmental performance because of the pack’s reduced weight.
It was the latest in a number of products to switch from glass to alternative formats in recent times. In response, the glass sector has been keen to promote its environment and food safety credentials through a number of social media campaigns and other promotional activities. But, despite the fact that European container glass production actually increased last year, are there concerns the message is not getting through?
“While the growth of grocery retailing is indeed leading to a more diverse mix of packaging types and the emergence of new formats, we do not see this as a general trend away from glass,” says Alex Robertson, sales and marketing director for UK glass at Ardagh Group. Today, there is clearly a much bigger range of alternatives to glass packaging than 50 years ago, and the fact that glass has been around for a hundreds of years is perhaps part of the sector’s problem.
“From a business perspective, we believe that decision makers know all too well the environmental benefits of glass but, because glass has been around for a long time, we are not seen as being able to wow those decision makers who are constantly looking for something new,” suggests Rebecca Cocking, head of container affairs at British Glass.
In the very competitive FMCG market, wowing the consumer is clearly of prime importance. But the fact that the basic technology has been used for millennia doesn’t mean that glass is stuck in the past. Ardagh has pioneered a number of product development techniques at its French research and development centre and other glass design facilities.
“The need for brand owners to find ever more imaginative ways to attract the attention of consumers will intensify. Glass enables distinctive brand personalities to be literally moulded, and creates a quality that reflects the core values of the brand,” says Robertson.
And it’s not just consumers who are attracted to glass. Structural designer Steve Gummer of Holmes & Marchant says: “Glass is one of the most versatile materials at the designer’s disposal. The shapes and colours it can be moulded into are almost limitless.” He adds that the general perception of glass is that of a “premium material with great intrinsic value with fantastically beautiful optical properties. It’s ingrained into our psyche.”
Premium is a buzzword in the glass sector and there is clearly room for further growth in markets like cosmetics and alcohol. There are also some niche markets that lend themselves well to glass packaging. Beatson Clark is one firm that is looking to take advantage of the “many opportunities” in these more specialist sectors. Sales and marketing director Lynn Sidebottom says: “More people are ‘treating in’ and cooking at home with high-quality products that are usually packaged in glass. Garden centres, delis and independent stores are still very popular in the UK, and the brands going into these stores are growing.”
While there is clearly the potential for growth for glass packaging, there is one particular issue that seems to provide ammunition for formats seeking to take on glass: the environment. British Glass views switches in packaging formats away from glass as “primarily marketing-based decisions to increase product sales by claiming ‘greener’ credentials”. “We believe the move back to glass will come when retailers and brands realise they can serve their customers needs better by keeping glass on the shelf,” adds Cocking.
Promoting the environmental benefits of glass has been at the heart of the sector’s public and social media campaigning, through schemes such as Friends of Glass, which is set to enter a fourth phase later this year. But there is clearly a need for more work to convince consumers of the benefits of glass. Despite considerable efforts to reduce the weight of containers – they are more than 40% lighter today than 20 years ago – it remains a major argument for moving to other formats.
“We live and work in a world powered by oil, which means the cost to business and the environment is very apparent,” says Holmes & Marchant’s Gummer. “Because of the energy needed to turn sand into glass and transport the containers, this is where most see glass failing to perform well environmentally and, therefore, why many companies and brands are making a shift towards increasingly lighter weight materials like plastics. But these substitutes are not without their problems.”
The glass sector’s response is to warn against the use of single metrics in measuring environmental impact. A more balanced approach will be beneficial to glass manufacturers and the material is, given the right collection systems, infinitely recyclable.
Ardagh’s Robertson says: “More of our stakeholders are recognising that it’s important to look at the whole life cycle of a product when making sustainable packaging decisions. Raw material extraction and recyclability are often overlooked in packaging material life-cycle analyses and yet these are both key factors in determining how truly sustainable the material of choice might be.”
British Glass’s Cocking adds: “We believe that, as food waste and food security move up the political agenda, glass will be able to help in reducing impacts and preserving products for longer.”
Food preservation and the inert nature of glass has been another argument in its favour, particularly in the face of concerns of chemical migration in other formats – such as bisphenol A in plastic baby bottles.
“Glass contains no harmful chemicals and is totally inert, so it is safe for the consumer and preserves the taste of the product. Glass often has a better shelf life and some products may need to be reformulated to be packaged in plastic,” says Beatson Clark’s Sidebottom.
This may be the case but glass may have to keep a beady eye on other challengers. One such firm is Greenbottle, which has signed an agreement to supply its paper bottles containing a plastic bag to a wine distributor. Inventor Martin Myerscough says: “In terms of ‘greenness’, the major advantage of the Greenbottle over glass is that it uses about 10% of the energy to form it.”
There is also the weight issue – the bottle weighs around 60g, compared to 400g for a conventional wine bottle. Myerscough suggests that, after wine, another application could be the high-end bottled water market, currently “under attack for not being environmentally friendly”.
Despite the significant interest from both consumer and trade media, though, it remains to be seen how much of the wine, or bottled water market the Greenbottle and other formats are able to take from glass. Indeed, a recent New York Times article suggested that US consumers were turning their backs on the alternatives and returning to glass bottles for water.
The glass industry will continue its efforts to promote its environmental credentials and a level playing field between all materials would certainly be welcomed. “Glass will play a vital role in an increasingly circular economy, where consumer goods, and particularly their packaging, will need to be infinitely recyclable within a closed-loop system,” says Ardagh’s Robertson.
It seems, then, that after being around for several hundred years, glass is still more than content to take the long-term approach.
Key challenges for glass
Efforts to increase the recycled content of glass containers are hindered by the lack of cullet of sufficient quality for reprocessing, particularly for flint and amber containers. The industry is working to help ensure collected materials are sorted efficiently for recycling.
The high temperatures required to turn sand into glass make the industry very energy-intensive. Volatile energy prices make the situation even more difficult for manufacturers, while transportation costs can be higher for glass than other materials because of the material’s weight.
Pressure from other materials seems likely to continue but the sector is taking a proactive approach to defending its environmental credentials through awareness campaigns and lobbying.