How does reducing plastic increase carbon?

I wanted to try to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our house. The first thing I did was look in the plastics recycling box; I found mainly food packaging, Tetra packs and milk bottles. Easy win, I thought, those milk bottles don’t have to be there.

So I signed up for a home delivery of milk in glass bottles by Scottish company who operate a rinse and return system. Maybe I’m romantic, but I liked the (perhaps nostalgic) idea of milk deliveries of my rural youth. So, every Monday night, I put out my empty bottles and before Tuesday’s breakfast, I have three glass bottles of fresh milk on my doorstep. Although I’d made the more expensive choice for the white stuff, my recycling box is less full. Environmental brownie points to me. Until …

A friend told me that in my attempt to reduce my plastic use, I might have inadvertently increased my carbon footprint.

What? It’s about the carbon embedded in the milk’s life-cycle, he said, not just in the final product.

Glass is much heavier than plastic, so my milk delivery requires bigger lorries and more fuel. So, he asserted, unless it comes from down the road (like it did when I was young), it’s bound to have caused more carbon emissions than if it were transported in plastic. Plastic bottles are also designed to be efficiently transported – their square shape means more bottles can be fitted onto one vehicle, making each delivery more efficient. I found a 2016 study concluding that plastic beats glass over its life-cycle, mainly because of glass’s energy-intensive production and transportation emissions.

Breakfast time!

I was crestfallen, at the point of giving up. How is an ordinary consumer who wants to do the right thing for the planet meant to make the right choices? Was I just jumping onto a trendy bandwagon? (The answer, sadly, is yes).

It just so happened that Zero Waste Scotland, a credible non-profit organisation, recently posted a blog about this. They concluded that it’s fine to use glass bottles, as long as;

  • the energy used in washing, rinsing and refilling them is low carbon; and
  • they are re-used at least 20 times (on average).

So, I had to go back to my supplier and check some facts.

Firstly, their processing of the glass involves four stages, soaking at 63 degrees C, draining, pre-rinsing in hot water and rinsing with tap water. I didn’t find out whether their electricity was low carbon, but unless they shouted about it, I assumed not.

Secondly, my supplier assumed a re-use of 14 times (oops, not enough for ZWS standards), “but that allows for people who do not return the glass. A bottle could be used up to 30-40 times” they said (phew, that’s better).

But the Zero Waste blog didn’t really address my friend’s point about transport, except to hint that choosing a local supplier means there would be lower transport emissions associated with delivery.

Mine was the most ‘local’ supplier I could find online. The milk came from “local farms” (they clarified that local actually meant Scottish), processed and bottled in Glasgow and sent in diesel “special VW transporters” to a distribution centre in Kirkcaldy before being delivered to my door in St Andrews (a journey of about 70 miles). That’s not exactly local.

So I am sad to conclude that until the following things happen:

  • I find a more local milk supplier,
  • We decarbonise the grid,
  • We decarbonise transport,
  • I stop drinking milk altogether (I will talk about diet in a later blog),

.. I can no longer claim the environmental brownie points of switching away from plastic.

Finding green alternatives to plastic is fraught with difficulty, particularly in our system of mass food production and transportation. My decision to use glass milk bottles was made for a different era and a different place. I’m not saying glass doesn’t work for everyone. It probably does for people living closer to where it’s made.

What I’ve learned, however, is that trying to make the greener choices is hard for the average consumer. There are limits to what individuals can realistically do, and where we sometimes need a little help and support.

And next time, I’ll be more wary of bandwagons…

4 thoughts on “How does reducing plastic increase carbon?

  1. Hi Eva!
    Like you I’ve done a lot of inward reflection about the state of the planet recently and have come to the conclusion that the only hope for us all is that we (by which I mean “humanity”) just bloody stop releasing CO2 from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere. No amount of agonizing over what type of milk to buy is going to make a jot of difference until Oil & Gas producers and industrial consumers are forced to capture CO2 emissions or stop burning fossil fuels altogether. I can recommend the BBC radio 4 “Life Scientific” episode from last Tuesday.


    1. I hear you, and for a long time I felt the same way, but I ended up finding it all such a difficult and daunting task. I was completely powerless to stop oil and gas companies doing what they do best, and hoping that one day a commercially viable carbon capture solution would come along. What I’m doing here is trying to break down the problem into smaller parts to try to inspire others about doing the little things differently, making small steps together and feeling like we are all pulling together in the same direction. Starting small within our own communities and friendship groups.

      For me, starting with the little things, and telling others, will make others think differently about their impact on the planet and together we can make some progress. I need something positive to hold on to!

      I will check out the radio programme – thanks for sharing!


  2. Hi Eva!..I did what you did and switched to glass milk bottles some time ago. I’m not as rigorous in my research as you and did it for the same reasons as you did but also other reasons – glass doesn’t have long-lasting, polluting effects on the environment, and also, I feel that plastic leaches into my food, especially fatty foods. I also feel that if enough of us do it, producers will eventually look to provide from local sources as it will make more economic sense. I think you are absolutely right when you say we don’t have control over the bigger picture..we have to start with our own behaviour. I’m slowly travelling along the same path to green…good luck with yours and don’t be disheartened..we can make a difference.


    1. Thanks for your comment, and your thoughts. It’s hard to fell sometimes that your efforts count, but they really do – see my later blog about how small actions really count.


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