We've often seen studies comparing certain products made from plastic and traditional materials -- like soft drink containers and grocery bags. What about food wrap -- what's the most sustainable choice? The Green Lantern blog from The Washington Post's Web site takes a look at that question today, and plastic ends up with a pretty good report card. Nina Shen Rastogi writes in "Aluminum foil or plastic wrap: Which is better for the environment?":
Judging by conversations the Lantern has had with her colleagues, most people seem to believe intuitively that aluminum foil is better for the planet, maybe because plastics are made from fossil fuels and we've heard so much about how they're polluting the oceans. Plus, foil can be rinsed and reused with relative ease, or sometimes even recycled at the curb, while plastic wrap is usually thrown away. But as we discussed in our analysis of beer containers, aluminum has a heavy manufacturing footprint. It takes a whole lot of energy to mine bauxite ore from the Earth and then process it: Producing a ton of aluminum ingots requires 170 million British thermal units of energy and spits out about 12 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. By comparison, producing a ton of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets requires just 17 percent as much energy and generates 12 percent as much greenhouse gas. (Consumer cling wrap used to be made out of polyvinyl chloride, a substance reviled by many environmentalists, but now it's nearly all LDPE or its tougher cousin, linear LDPE.)For the answer, Rastogi turns to an online tool called Compass from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which packaging designers can use to compare the environmental impacts of their products. When comparing one square foot of aluminum foil and one square foot of LDPE, aluminum "was the loser in nearly all the metrics Compass assesses, including fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, aquatic toxicity and potential for eutrophication." Using recycled aluminum helps to narrow the gap, as does reusing the aluminum foil. These results are sure to surprise many Post readers, who likely assume that aluminum is always the environmentally superior choice in packaging.