Packaging is usually used to contain, protect, handle or deliver goods like food or products in general. Besides the content, packaging also includes auxiliary or ancillary elements (such as labels, lids (on yogurt pots, for example), fillings, among others).
Packaging can be made from different types of material, such as glass, cardboard, plastic or metal, among others.
The yellow container (color in Spain and generally in Europe, too) is for packaging waste (this fraction does not include paper-cardboard packaging or glass packaging).
Plastic and metals represent 20% and 28% of the total waste generated.
PLASTIC PACKAGING (BOTTLES)
There is a wide variety of plastics. Most of them are artificial materials, although there are some which are natural. In the beginning, materials were considered plastic not because of their composition but because of their plasticity, their ability to take on different forms at certain temperature ranges. Plastics, in general, come from petroleum and other natural substances and are obtained synthetically by multiplying the carbon atoms present in their molecules (polymerization). Plastics are often light – or low in density–, are relatively cheap and very durable over time. Plastic is extremely integrated in the modern way of life.
Plastics are petroleum derivatives. They have only been in general use for 100 years and have grown exponentially
The history of plastic began in 1860 and 1909 marked the beginning of the “plastic era” with the manufacturing of the first fully synthetic plastic called Bakelite. Therefore, unlike other materials such as paper or glass, plastic has only been in use for about 100 years. However, the use of plastic has grown exponentially and is expected to continue. Compared to the almost 2 tons produced in 1950, this figure rose to 300 million tons in 2013, and it is expected that, at this growth rate, in 2050 world plastic production could triple. It is estimated that 26% of global plastic production is destined for the production of plastic packaging (other sources indicate 40%).
It is calculated that, in 2012, world plastic production reached almost 300 million tons. Plastic production accounts for between 6% and 8% of global oil consumption (half as raw material and the other half as the energy required to manufacture plastic). Remember that oil is a finite resource.
The main types of plastic packaging found in household and businesses garbage are:
- PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate is a very resistant and light material. It’s usually used for the manufacturing of water bottles or carbonated soft drinks. It represents 15% of European plastic packaging (production)
- HDPE or high-density polyethylene is a plastic which is resistant both to impacts and to low temperatures, it’s waterproof and is an electrical insulator. It is used for milk bottles or cleaning products and detergents. It represents 19% of European plastic packaging
- LDPE or low-density polyethylene is a soft plastic which is flexible and not terribly resistant to temperature that is used to make plastic bags like the ones we can find in supermarkets or shops, garbage bags or plastic film. It represents 32% of European plastic packaging
- Other plastics such as PP or polypropylene or PS or polystyrene and expanded polystyrene (porexpan)
According to European law, all packaging must include identification or labeling indicating its composition, to facilitate collection and recycling.
The plastic packaging from the yellow bins can be fully recycled, 100%. It is estimated that the plastic recycling process can be repeated 4 or 5 times.
Plastic packaging can be 100% recycled up to 5 times
The packaging recycling process starts in a triage facility where items are separated by material type and then taken to the treatment facilities. To carry out this selection, in Catalonia there are 13 triage facilities and a total of 94 in Spain.
Once in the treatment facility, the plastic packaging is crushed down into small plastic flakes. These flakes are melted into pellets to manage their properties and to obtain a suitable material from which recycled products can be produced, and avoid to send it to landfill or incineration. Some examples of recycled products that can be made are: pipes (31%), industrial components (25%), bags and sheets (15%), garbage bags (10%), various (14%) (street furniture, hangers, footwear, etc.), bottles and jerry cans (3%), household goods (2%) or plastic packaging that is not destined for food products (such as detergents or household cleaning products).
Metals are materials or chemical elements that are characterized by their capacity to conduct or transmit heat and electricity. They are usually quite heavy or dense, and are generally solid at room temperature. Most elements on the periodic table are metals.
The history of metal use goes back to Prehistory, in particular to the Bronze Age (3500 a.C), which was followed by the Iron Age (1400 a.C.). Therefore, we have been using metals for over 5,500 years.
The main metal packaging found in the garbage bags of homes and businesses are:
- Steel cans (98% iron and 2% carbon, approximately)
- Aluminum cans, for foodstuffs
- Aerosols (deodorants, cleaning products, etc.)
We have been using metals for over 5,000 years. This material can be endlessly recycled
Metals, like glass, can be endlessly recycled without altering their characteristics, by different companies such as Breaker Baker scrap yard. Metallic packaging is 100% recyclable as melting processes allow a suitable material to be obtained which can be used to manufacture new products. Aluminum recycling produces a product which is practically the same as virgin aluminum.
In 2012, 41% of aluminum packaging was recycled in Spain. It is estimated that 70% of the cans on the Spanish market are aluminum while steel cans make up 30%.
I will talk more about the packing recycle in the following post.
Want to know more?
i The book Stop garbage. The truth about recycling, Alex Pascual, February 2019
► Packaging that leaves a mark “Envases que dejan huella,” Escarabajo verde program, RTVE (CAST)
i History of a can (CAST)
i Information about the DRS system (Deposit Refund System) (ENG /CAST)
i Plastics Europe web (ENG)
i The most common types of plastics (ENG)
 My compilation from different studies: “Pesa la brossa” 2014. Study for the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and General Program of Prevention and Waste Management of Catalonia 2013-2020. According to the Agència de Residus de Catalunya 2014, the data are Organic 37%, paper, and cardboard 12%, glass 8%, plastics and metals 12%. “La gestiódelsresidus i el seu impacte en el canviclimàtic.” Statistics 2014
 My compilation from study of annual report 2015, Ecoembes “Informe anual integrado” https://www.ecoembes.com/es/ciudadanos/ecoembes/publicaciones/informe-anual
. New Link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety” Web Environmental Health Perspectives ehp.niehs.nih.gov
. Wurpel G.,Van den Akker J., Pors J., Ten Wolde, Plastics do not belong in the ocean. Towards aroadmap for a clean North Sea. IMSA Amsterdam,2011), p. 39
. The new plastics economy. Rethinking the plastics economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, enero 2016
. Libro Verde: sobre una estrategia europea frente a los residuos de plásticos en el medio ambiente, Comisión Europea
. “Global Plastic Production Rises, Recycling Lags,” World watch Institute.
. “The new plastics economy. Rethinking the plastics economy,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, enero 2016
. “Global Plastic Production Rises, Recycling Lags,” World watch Institute.
. ”Plastic waste in the environment,” Comisión Europea
. Libro Verde: sobre una estrategia europea frente a los residuos de plásticos en el medio ambiente, Comisión Europea y mismo dato Ciclopast, http://www.cicloplast.com
. “How many times can we recycle?,” El País, blog semanal. 2010
. PINFRECAT: Territorial plan for municipal waste management infrastructures in Catalonia 2013-2020
. Annual report 2013 Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente, Spanish Government.
. “Plastic recycling,” Ciclopast, http://www.cicloplast.com
. Association for the aluminum products recycling, http://www.aluminio.org
Plastic picture by Tony Webster, and metal picture by Jproj