This article is from the Food Science FAQ, firstname.lastname@example.org (Paul E. J. King) with numerous contributions by others.
The '3 R's' of current environmental packaging law and practice
are Reduce, Re-use and Re-cycle. These are the main ways of
minimising municipal waste disposal. As far as re-cycling of food
packaging is concerned is concerned, the major materials have to be
considered and dealt with separately.
Glass, tinplate and aluminium, when recovered by re-cycling, can
give similar performance to that provided by the virgin materials.
Re-cycling all three reduces overall energy usage (particularly with
aluminium). Re-cycling schemes are now in operation for the recovery
of both tinplate and aluminium containers. Glass containers (eg. milk
bottles) if sound can be returned and re-used; but broken glass
('cullet') is returned to the glassworks for re-cycling. Paper and
paperboard can be recovered and re-cycled for newsprint, tissues, and
some grades of paperboard.
Various plastic materials present a variety of recovery and
re-cycling problems. About half of all consumer goods are packaged in
plastic of one kind or another, yet, because of the lightweight
character of plastic packaging, it represents only 15% by weight. Its
light weight is of course economical of materials and energy for
transport of goods packed in plastic. Most individual plastic
packages (without counting the weight of contents) weigh less than 10
g, and some of these are contaminated with food residues such as
yogurt, fats, cream and similar products. The light weight makes it
more difficult to collect and transport for re-cycling. Lightweight
films, bags, pouches, etc made of plastics or plastics/paper
laminates are probably better incinerated to recover energy.