On November 17, 2020, researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK announced the publication of a life cycle assessment (LCA) study in the peer-reviewed journal Detritus investigating the environmental impact of five different types of soft drink containers. The five types of packaging included glass bottles, aluminum cans, milk cartons, Tetra Paks, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles. These five packaging types were then assessed for use with three common beverage types: milk, fruit juice, and pressurized drinks. The assessment was completed using the open-source software OpenLCA combined with freely available inventory data from databases including the European reference Life Cycle Database of the Joint Research Center (ELCD), from previous LCA studies, and from scientific reports and peer-reviewed literature.
The LCA considered processes related to the extraction of virgin materials, manufacturing of the packaging article, and end of life treatment (including landfill, incineration, and recycling based on UK disposal rates). Using characterization factors from the CML database, the authors estimated primarily environmental impacts across a range of categories including climate change, depletion of abiotic resources, eutrophication, freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity, human toxicity, and ozone depletion. The containers each scored differently across the impact categories and for the different beverage types.
For use with pressurized drinks, recycled aluminum cans were found to have the lowest environmental impact across all categories except for marine aquatic ecotoxicity (where recycled glass bottles had the lowest impact). However, the authors found that glass bottles in this category, primarily due to high energy use during production, had the highest environmental impact in multiple categories including climate change, acidification, eutrophication, and depletion of abiotic resources. The containers with the least environmental impacts for the other beverage types were found to be Tetra Pak for fruit juices and milk cartons for milk.
“All beverage packaging that we assessed showed some form of environmental impacts and both the milk carton and Tetra Pak, despite being less impactful than the plastic bottles, still contain plastic elements,” co-author Alice Brock commented in a press release. “Based on the evidence, society needs to move away from single-use beverage packaging in order to reduce environmental harm and embrace the regular everyday use of reusable containers as standard practice.”
Alice Brock and Ian D. Williams (October 5, 2020). “Life Cycle Assessment of Beverage Packaging.” Detritus. doi: 10.31025/2611-4135/2020.14025
Ian Williams and Alice Brock (November 17, 2020). “Ranked: the environmental impact of five different soft drink containers.” The Conversation
University of Southampton (November 18, 2020). “Glass bottles amongst the most environmentally impactful says Southampton study.”
Olivia Rosane (November 18, 2020). “Study: Glass Bottles Harm the Environment More Than Plastic Bottles.” EcoWatch