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PET Bottles Have Smaller Environmental Impact than Glass and Aluminum Containers, Study Shows

NAPCOR study shows PET plastic bottles create less solid waste, use less water during production, and generate fewer emissions than their aluminum and glass counterparts.

Norbert Sparrow

March 7, 2023

I highly doubt a new life cycle assessment (LCA) showing that plastic bottles are less harmful to the environment than aluminum cans and glass bottles will change any minds in our tribal culture, but it is our duty to report. 

Plastic packaging blow molded from PET is used in more than 70% of beverage containers because it’s lightweight, clear, and 100% recyclable, states the press release issued by the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). It went on to say that PET plastic bottles create less solid waste, use less water during production, and generate fewer emissions than their aluminum and glass counterparts.

NAPCOR partnered with Franklin Associates, an LCA consulting firm, to produce the study, which reportedly underwent an extensive peer review and verification process. Obviously, NAPCOR has a dog in this fight, which anti-plastics advocates will immediately pounce on. However, it is our view that you can’t argue with the science-based conclusions of the study.

In a comparison of a 16.9-ounce plastic water bottle with a 12-ounce aluminum can, the LCA determined that the PET plastic bottle:

  • Consumes 80% less energy during production;

  • creates 80% less solid waste;

  • uses 53% less water during production;

  • has a 74% lower global warming potential;

  • generates 68 to 83% fewer emissions that contribute to acid rain and smog formation.

Over the course of one year, US residents would conserve 4.4 billion liters of water by opting for a PET plastic bottle and it would be the equivalent of removing 688,000 gas-powered cars off the road and diverting 138 million bags filled with trash from landfill, according to NAPCOR.

“The LCA scientifically and credibly demonstrates how plastic packaging provides significant environmental benefits that will help the world meet its vital net zero carbon targets,” said NAPCOR Executive Director Laura Stewart. “A PET bottle is 100% recyclable and can be made with 100% recycled content. The LCA’s results should be empowering for businesses and consumers because we can confirm once again that choosing PET plastic beverage containers is the best option for the planet.”

Stewart adds that waste management must be an integral part of this conversation. “By conducting the LCA we hope to better inform consumers, brands, and legislators about their packaging options and the impact on the environment. At NAPCOR, we are committed to working closely with our partners, customers, and community members to increase the rates of plastic recycling. The full benefits of choosing PET come about when we recycle it.”

But, perception is everything. In the public forum, plastic has a huge hurdle to overcome it it's to shed its image of environmental pariah, which has been reinforced in myriad ways. I’m reminded of Liquid Death, a water brand that uses aluminum cans to “murder your thirst” and “kill plastic pollution” in one gulp. I wrote about the company after it ran an ad in Super Bowl LVI (56, played in 2022, if you’re challenged by Roman numerals beyond X, as I am). Aluminum containers, as the LCA points out, are not the most environmentally virtuous choice in a single-use scenario. Plus, in the case of Liquid Death, there’s also the matter of the environmental cost of shipping water from the Austrian Alps to quench American thirst, a fact that the company neglects to mention in its marketing literature.

On the one hand, you have a science-based LCA which, granted, is supported by an association representing the PET plastic packaging industry. On the other, a rather cynical marketing-savvy brand. I wonder which one will win the hearts and minds of the average consumer?

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree. Reach him at [email protected].

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