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Sustainability and Packaging: We Chose Plastic. Here’s Why

Sustainability and Packaging: We Chose Plastic. Here’s Why

 

Bottles, tubes, jars, droppers, ampules, cans, jugs, tubs, sticks...whatever. The options for personal care packaging are seemingly endless.  

How do you choose? Why did Basic Maintenance choose plastic? Why are some products in tubes and others in bottles? All good questions, to which we will take you behind the scenes to answer. 

 

Affordability

Generally, packaging considerations start simply with what you can afford.

The state of the industry is such that when it comes to ordering packaging, the minimums for most types of containers are enormously high - between 10,000 and 30,000. Needless to say, this isn’t particularly feasible for a…start-up.  

It’s a massive barrier to entry, an obstruction to innovation, and a cost that we aren’t yet able to absorb.

Stability & Compatibility

Once you’ve found a suitable supplier, the next consideration is what’s known as stability. Stability, as it sounds, addresses whether or not the particular formula you intend to put in that packaging will remain stable over time. Will it react adversely to the material of the packaging? At high temperatures? At low temperatures? Will it affect the formula in any way? Bacteria? Colour? Viscosity?

In terms of compatibility, and depending on the ingredients and the function of the product, plastic might be a necessity to safely protect the formula over time and ensure a safe customer experience. Sometimes it’s just simple common sense. For example, there is good reason for not seeing a lot of shampoo bottles made of glass. The last thing you want while taking a bath or a shower is shards of glass accidentally entering the mix.

Once you’ve determined whether or not your formula is stable in a particular type of packaging and compatible for its intended use, you’re generally good to go.

For most products, plastic is obviously the most common, followed by glass and aluminum. Some brands make use of papers and various biobased options - such as sugarcane - but less commonly. Why? Because of stability and compatibility.

As a quick example, consider paper packaging. Paper gets…wet. This clearly isn’t a viable option for any liquid based formulas. Plus, if you ever see a cosmetic in a paper based container, exactly 100% of the time it’s either lined with plastic, or sprayed/soaked with a resinous chemical to make it waterproof. So really what’s the point?

Sustainability

When we think of sustainability, we usually tend to think of the end-of-life state of the product/packaging at hand - i.e. how it’s discarded. Unfortunately, this ignores the entire life cycle of the product/packaging up until that point. The production, transportation, usage and finally, end-of-life disposal of the item all contribute to its environmental impact. 

Measuring this is done by what’s known as a Life Cycle Analysis. Quantifying the total environmental impact at each stage in the product’s life cycle. How much energy is used to produce it? How much water? How much land? What types of emissions does it generate? How much energy is used to transport it? How is the product used? How easily is it disposed of and/or recycled or reused?

Unsurprisingly, most people would assume glass or aluminum are the most environmentally friendly materials. Oddly enough, this is incorrect. But there is a whole lot of context and nuance involved. So take it all with a grain of salt. 

Production

When ranking material production in relation to energy efficiency, plastic is second right after wood and aluminum and glass are last.

There is also what’s known as PCR Plastics - Post Consumer Resin or Post Consumer Recycled. These are plastics that have been produced using previously recycled plastics. They have been cleaned, melted down and molded into new pellets for further use in plastic production. 

The production of PCR plastics like R-PTE and R-HDPE gives the lowest contribution to global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, terrestrial acidification, fossil resource scarcity, water consumption and human carcinogenic toxicity, followed by virgin plastic bottles, returnable glass bottles, and finally non-returnable glass bottles. 

As a brief snapshot of the type of energy consumed in the production of plastic, glass and aluminum, consider this: the amount of energy it takes to create a PET plastic bottle is 11 million BTU, vs. 16 million BTU for an aluminum can and 26.6 BTU for a glass bottle. The CO2 equivalent - think greenhouse gas emissions -  is 1,125 for a PET bottle, 2,766 for an aluminum can, and 4,848 for a glass bottle. 

Plastic is the clear winner here. 

Transportation

The weight of goods is an important factor in transportation. From both a cost and emissions perspective, plastic is the preferred choice by ingredient suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors due to a variety of factors. 

Glass simply weighs a lot. It requires a lot of money, and a lot of energy to ship around the world. Aluminum is lighter, but even here, it doesn’t make-up for the astronomical numbers it puts up from its energy use in the production phase. 

Again, plastic comes out on top. 

Durability

As plastic is more durable there is less chance of breaks, leaks and a stronger resistance to environmental extremes potentially experienced during shipment. 

Extreme swings in temperature - for example, sitting on a loading dock in Alaska or one in Miami - can and do have drastic effects on products. While the stability concerns above were regarding the impact this might have on the formula itself, temperature fluctuations affect packaging as well. Particularly glass. It breaks! Consider this: most of your personal care products are formulated with water as the primary ingredient. What does water do when it freezes? It expands. Slowly but surely putting pressure on that glass bottle until it cracks. 

Temperature fluctuations aside, glass packaging’s rate of failure at the freight, store and end-use level is a real issue. 

Not only does this affect that individual product and order, but having to replace any damaged product doubles the carbon footprint of the purchase. You have to re-bottle and repack and reship that heavy glass to fulfill the order all over again. 

More often than not, plastic again is the better choice. 

Recyclability

This is where it gets a bit interesting. By interesting, we mean disheartening.

Firstly, there are two types of recycling systems. Single stream collection, and multi stream collection. 

Single-stream means recyclable items are all mixed into a single recycling bin. Glass, aluminum and steel cans, various types of plastic, paper products - you name it - it all gets tossed into one, generally blue, bin.  Once collected by truck, it is sent to a sorting facility where it goes through both mechanical and manual separation. Most US and Canadian municipalities use single-stream curbside collection.  

Multi-stream is when the consumer cleans and manually sorts items into designated bins by material and color, for example: clear, green, and amber glass. This is far more common in European countries.

In terms of plastic, PET and HDPE make up most of the bottle market in North America. They are the most recycled and the easiest to recycle using either single or multi stream collection. 

At the sorting facility level, PET and HDPE plastics are easily identified by their recycling code number. Look for the recycling triangle with the numbers 1 or 2 at the center. They are the most likely to be correctly sorted and recycled as opposed to thinner, more flexible plastics. Once recycled, the sustainability factor for both improves even more, because nearly half of their energy is attributed to their “resource energy” i.e. the energy that can be recaptured and reused through recycling. A topic for another day. 

The destination of the product after use, i.e. it’s ‘end-of-life’, includes mechanical or chemical recycling, burning the plastic into energy, or burying it in a landfill.  None of these systems is a perfect solution. There is a real need for innovation to prevent it all from heading directly to landfills or accumulating in different ecosystems.

It is estimated that 30% of all plastics ever produced are currently in use, approximately 12% of plastics have been incinerated and 9% have been recycled, and only 10% have been recycled more than once. Around 60% of all plastics ever produced have been discarded and are simply building up in landfills or the natural environment. 

This is bad!

When it comes to glass, unfortunately, recycling of it simply still isn’t great - especially in the US. Canada is marginally better, but not enough to make much of a difference. Regardless of how high people rank the importance of environmental solutions like recycling, the statistics reveal a massive gap between the fact that glass can be endlessly recycled and the reality that it’s simply not happening. In theory, it can be melted down and molded into new glass products with no loss of quality. Technology and municipal systems aside, this is technically possible, but rarely the case. 

In the US, of the 10 million metric tons of glass that is disposed of every year, only 33% is properly recycled. Consider this in contrast to the EU, where 90% of glass is recycled. 

This shortfall is due to a combination of government policy and consumer habits/education. Our single-stream services mean that once collected by truck and sent to the sorting facility, the glass is separated and sold to crushed glass - aka cullet -  producers. The glass that gets sent to these producers needs to be as clean as possible, so the quality and the ability to recycle it isn’t degraded. Another problem is the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of these - around 400 in the US and 100 in Canada. Relative to the recycling needs of population size, this is untenable. 

Rather than asking people to be more vigilant about sorting, cleaning and packaging recyclable products into proper bins - like other countries - we are heavily dependent on sorting these facilities. 

Then there’s what’s known as ‘wish-cycling’. When well intentioned people throw things into the recycling bins that can’t be recycled – plastic bags, batteries, light bulbs, soiled food containers, whatever. Garbage mistakenly placed in the recycling bin can render the entire bin, or, in some cases - the entire truckload! - non-recyclable. Wish-cycling usually sends things straight to a landfill. This is generally due to a lack of consumer education about what can and cannot be recycled, coupled with a lack of alternative systems, like a multi steam service.

So, plastic or glass? The answer here isn’t all that clear. If glass is actually reused and recycled it can be the gold standard in sustainable materials available. However, if proper recycling systems are not in place, then glass starts to fall short very quickly.

For plastic, the most ideal solution, in principle, is working towards a circular economy, where it is kept in constant rotation. Transitioning to a circular economy offers opportunities to close waste loops for plastic and extends the life of plastic through recycling.

Not sure there is a case for either plastic or glass to have won this round. 

Reusability 

A large majority of finished cosmetic products housed in plastic or glass are multi-use: they are not disposed of after a single use and the amount of times they are used according to function can range into several hundred uses. Depending on the size and type, the product could also be kept in use for several weeks to multiple months. 

What about single-use plastics?

Single use packaging is one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste across the world. In our industry, single use plastic can take the form of sampling, packaging materials, shipping materials, and for specific products, things like spatulas or applicators. Raw materials are typically delivered in plastic bags, known as totes, or plastic drums. Sometimes these can be reused, other times not. It generally depends on the ingredients shipped, as well as the take-back policy of the supplier. 

Even if a glass bottle is used a few times over, it still doesn’t make up for the nearly quadrupled energy production it takes to produce a plastic bottle that is used only once.

Unless that bottle is discarded into the sea.

Nuance. Context. Inconclusiveness. 

TL;DR

What does Basic Maintenance use?

All of our containers are virgin PET or HDPE plastics. 

Regardless of what we’re sourcing, we take into account the location, packaging materials, certifications and ingredient weight with an eye towards ensuring the lowest carbon footprint possible. Unfortunately, some tradeoffs do have to be made in order to ensure the safest and most effective ingredients for the formulas and packaging of our products.

Why do you not use PCR plastics?

Going back to the conversation above regarding the minimum order quantities required for PCR plastic containers, we would have to purchase 30,000 units of each tube and bottle type we required. That was simply out of the question. We’re buying our packaging containers 250 at a time… Because, y’know, we’re just getting started. 

As soon as we can justify the price tag and order quantity for PCR plastics, you bet we’ll be doing it. While virgin plastics are indeed the second best packaging option for sustainability reasons, you know what they say - if you aint first, you’re last. And we have every intention of being number one across all categories. Hard to imagine us priding ourselves on having the best products in the second best packaging. 

Sources

 

Documentation for Greenhouse Gas Emission and Energy Factors Used in the Waste Reduction Model
https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2016-03/documents/warm_v14_containers_packaging_non-durable_goods_materials.pdf

Plastic Pollution 
Plastic Pollution. Oxford University and Global Change Data Lab.

Impact Of Plastics Packaging On Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions In The United States And Canada. Substitution Analysis. Franklin Associates, A Division of Eastern Research Group (ERG) © January 2014 

"U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database." (2012). National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2012: 

Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability. United Nations Environment Programme, 2018.

Single-use Plastics. Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). October 2016. 

Lifecycle Inventory Of Three Single-serving Soft Drink Containers.
Franklin Associates. August 2009.

Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.
Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law. Science Advances. ©2017 ;3: e1700782 19 July 2017

Introduction to PET. PET Resin Association (PETRA).

The Future of Petrochemicals. International Energy Agency.

Gomes, Thiago & Visconte, Leila & Pacheco, Elen. (2019). Life Cycle Assessment of Polyethylene Terephthalate Packaging: An Overview. Journal of Polymers and the Environment. 27. 10.1007/s10924-019-01375-5.

Michela Vellini, Michela Savioli. Energy and environmental analysis of glass container production and recycling. Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Rome, Rome, Italy. Energy: The International Journal.  (2008). https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy

Why Glass Recylcing in the US is Broken. Jacoby, 2019.
https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6

https://sunrisesanitation.com/breaking-down-the-environmental-impact-of-glass-and-plastic/