Growing inside Glass: In Conversation with the FEVE Secretary General

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Adeline Farrelly, Secretary General of the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE)

“I remember planting seeds in a glass jam jar at school,” says Adeline Farrelly, thinking back over childhood memories. “Real flowers – Busy Lizzies I think. As far as I remember there was no soil, just a bit of water. Then we watched them sprout and grow over a few weeks.”

With Farrelly now Secretary General of FEVE, the European Container Glass Federation in Brussels, she knows better than anyone that glass is important for more than classroom gardening projects. The United Nations has even made 2022 the International Year of Glass, she points out.

Born in Dublin, Farrelly moved to Belgium in 1990, where she has been Secretary General of FEVE since 2008. Sitting down with a glass (of course) of wine on a rainy Brussels afternoon, she explained why this ancient material is the perfect packaging material for a 21st century society.

Q Why do you think the UN has made this the International Year of Glass?

A “The UN says the year will “celebrate the essential role glass has and will continue to have in society,” and that’s an important reminder for us all. We all know that people have always loved glass for its beauty and practicality. But nowadays consumers also love glass because it fits with modern “sustainable” shopping habits. For instance, people want to avoid creating waste packaging problems through unsustainable shopping. In Europe today, three-quarters of shoppers say they prefer to buy products with environmentally friendly packaging. They value glass as a material that prevents littering and food waste

So I’m really glad to see the UN launch an event to “highlight the latest thinking on how glass can aid the development of more just and sustainable societies alongside the most recent scientific and technical breakthroughs.”

That’s even more timely as we live through the Coronavirus pandemic. The health impacts of packaging, questions about toxicity and food chain contamination, all this has been added to the list of things consumers worry about when it comes to choosing products and their packaging. And I honestly think people know that, when it comes to sustainability, they can trust glass. It’s made entirely of naturally available raw materials, it doesn’t pollute the environment if littered, and it’s the only packaging that can be recycled an infinite number of times or reused and refilled, without affecting the quality of the final product or its contents.”

Q How does that fit with EU public concerns today, like climate change and health?

A “It’s funny but, with so many problems, glass can help us to find a solution. Today of course for many people, and perhaps all governments, the main concern is that we are going through the worst health crisis in living memory. Glass containers have been fundamental to helping us face up to the Coronavirus pandemic. I mean, factories have been running non-stop to produce the glass vials the world needs for Coronavirus vaccines.

Glass also plays a strong role in promoting jobs and business: something that is particularly relevant when, as today, social and economic worries abound. Our container glass industry alone is responsible for around 125,000 jobs across the EU and UK, including some 44,000 direct jobs at glass manufacturers.

But even when we do one day emerge from the pandemic, another huge challenge will remain: how to face up to climate change. That’s why the glass packaging industry has set its sights on climate neutral production. More efficient furnaces are already on the horizon, meaning a transition to cleaner energy, improved hybrid technology and the use of even more recycled glass than ever before. They’re set to significantly reduce carbon emissions from glass production. And of course, the fact that glass can be endlessly recycled or reused helps to cut energy use and carbon emissions.”

Q Do you really mean that glass can be recycled an infinite number of times, as part of what the EU calls a circular economy?

A “Absolutely. The recyclability of glass is really astonishing. A bottle of water can become a pot of hand cream, then a bottle of perfume, then a jar of mayonnaise, and so on and so on, with absolutely no effect on the contents or the quality of the jar. Your strawberry jam won’t start tasting of Chanel Number 5 just because the same glass helped to make both containers. Recycling rates in Europe are something we should already be really proud of. About 8 out of 10 glass bottles put on the market are collected for recycling around Europe and I believe that figure will be 9 out of 10 by the end of this decade. Glass bottles can also be reused up to 40 times, especially effectively when used locally in short-distance markets, and still be recycled at end of life. This saves virgin raw materials, as well as reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions.”

Q So how can we take those collection and recycling rates higher for glass packaging?

A “There are lots of ways and we’re working on them all. First of all, we just want Europe to do even more of what it already does so well. For decades, glass has been collected for recycling as part of household bin collections and at bottle banks. It’s a very simple approach, glass waste can all be collected together, regardless of what it was used for. Glass is inert and acts as a safe barrier for the contents, so there’s no need to separate glass packaging that has been in contact with food, medicine or cosmetics, for instance, before recycling. We should be making it easy for everyone to do more of this.

We’re also expecting a review of the EU packaging waste directive this year. That for instance needs to make space for a recycling hierarchy, to encourage infinitely recyclable, “permanent” materials such as glass. We’re still hoping and waiting for a legal definition of permanent material, in a circular economy. The European Parliament has suggested something along the lines of “a material that can retain its inherent properties after recycling” and that will help reduce the use of “primary raw materials,” but Europe now needs wider recognition of this.”

Q This has already been a remarkable decade. What do you expect and hope for from 2022?

A “I think over these really difficult two years we’ve all seen the importance of finding ways to keep working together. Finding a common sense of purpose in confused times. To give a few examples, during the pandemic we’ve led glass collection rates in Europe to a record high 78%. Our members have supported projects to make climate-neutral glass bottles and cut the carbon impact of glass packaging We’ve launched a new packaging symbol to be printed on labels or directly onto the glass itself, showing the environmental and health benefits of choosing products packaged in glass I’m really hopeful that this year we’ll find even more new ideas and projects that address the environmental, health and social problems our society is facing. And glass packaging will continue to be central to that.”

The seeds in a school jam jar grew to much more than flowers!


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