Trends in environmental impacts of drinks packaging

The amount of drinks packaging waste generated in the UK increased by 56,000 tonnes between 1986 and 1990, although the efficiency of delivering the beverages improved, according to an assessment conducted for the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN).1 The packaging industry has taken the results as proof that policy should not enforce recycling and refilling, but environmentalists say that the Government needs to limit the amount of packaging produced. After an error in the original calculations was corrected, the results also showed that refillable packaging does better in environmental terms than INCPEN had contended.

The latest report on the use of resources in drinks packaging comes more than three years after its predecessor (ENDS Report 177, pp 21-23), and is the UK's response to the data-gathering clauses of the near-redundant 1985 EC Directive on beverage containers (ENDS Report 126, p 22). Like the first, it was produced by Dr Ian Boustead, an independent life-cycle assessment practitioner.

More topically, it may contribute to the negotiations currently under way on the draft EC Directive on packaging waste. And even if the study fails to influence the draft Directive at this stage, the author anticipates that it could be used to prove "scientifically" that recycling may not be the best environmental option for certain packaging systems.

However, like the previous version, the report covers only raw material and energy consumption and production of solid waste. It does not analyse releases to air or water, because there was no requirement for this in the 1985 Directive and because the available data are poor.

The report therefore only tells part of the story. INCPEN has always contended that legislation must be based on a sound analysis of all the impacts, and will need to bear that in mind in using the report in its lobbying.

The main conclusion pulled out from the analysis by INCPEN is that the amount of energy and raw materials consumed and solid waste generated per drink declined between 1986 and 1990. On a per container basis, average energy use fell from 10.53 to 10.06MJ (4%), while in terms of volume of drink delivered the reduction was from 16 to 14.8MJ/litre (7%).

Equally, the amount of waste drinks packaging declined from 54 to 48 grams per container; or from 82 to 71g/litre just looking at the container alone; or from 83 to 75g/container or 126 to 111g/litre if the waste produced by the whole packaging system is considered.

There has also been a corresponding decrease in the amount of raw materials consumed, although it is inappropriate to aggregate the reductions in different raw materials.

The main reason for the reductions is that there has been a trend to buying larger-sized containers which are more resource-efficient. Much of this has occurred in the carbonated soft drink market where the volume of drinks sold increased by 30% over the five-year period, while the number of containers increased by only 18%. Similarly, the amount of milk sold increased by 24%, while the number of containers used grew by just 18%, as customers switched from one-pint returnable glass bottles to one-litre or two-pint paper cartons.

A proportion of the improved energy efficiency may have come from the increased volume of drinks packaging being recycled in the UK, especially cans and bottles. However, no figure is given.

While INCPEN has stressed the improved efficiency of the system, Friends of the Earth has highlighted the increase in the amount of packaging used. The Government, it says, should set explicit targets to reduce this. The total amount of solid packaging waste increased by 5%, and energy consumption by 10%, over the period.

Unlike the earlier analysis, the new version fails to break down the volumes of packaging into refillable and one-way packs. No assessment can therefore be made of the trend away from refillable systems and the effect this is having on the volumes of waste produced and energy consumed. In 1986, returnable containers accounted for half the container trips, mostly in the milk, beer and carbonated soft drinks sector. Today, with rising sales of beverages through supermarkets, that proportion is likely to be much lower.

The report sheds some light on whether this trend necessarily has an adverse impact on the environment. It indicates that without high trippage rates returnable systems use more energy and create more waste than one-way systems.

This is not surprising. But the report could have helped pinpoint the trippage rates at which refillable systems out-perform one-way containers on both energy and waste grounds. Instead, it simply compares one-way containers with refillables at a very low trippage rate of two, and very high rates of 18 and 20. The average milk container trippage rate is 11.45.

Despite this, INCPEN claims that refillable containers are "no better, or worse, for the environment than other containers." The "critical consideration", it says, is the consumer's actions in ensuring trippage rates are high. The example of milk shows where refillable systems could be maintained on the grounds of both energy efficiency and waste generation - if high trippage rates could be assured.

For example, for total energy consumption per container and per litre of drink delivered, the returnable one-pint milk bottle, reused 20 times, tops the energy efficiency league. The energy consumption is 2,252MJ/1000 litres of milk, compared with 6,011MJ for a one-pint paper carton. One-way systems come closer when larger volumes are packaged, such as the 2 litre carton at 3,440MJ/1000 litres, except the 2.2 litre HDPE bottle at 6,536MJ/1000 litres.

But the report contains an error which INCPEN has now acknowledged in calculating the waste generated by returnable systems, and this makes any comparison difficult. Mistakenly, it did not take into account trippage rates for any of the refillable systems.

Where the original calculations put refillable milk bottles way down the ranking tables for waste, the revised calculations tell a different story. For a pint bottle reused 20 times, only 0.044 tonnes of waste are produced per 1,000 litres during manufacture and disposal, putting it ahead of all but a 2.2 litre HDPE bottle and a 2 litre brik carton in the ranking. One thousand one-pint cartons would produce 16% more waste.

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