Glass. Something so familiar, so part of our daily lives that we don’t often notice it. In fact you might say that we look right through it. But glass is truly a wonder material whose sheer versatility may surprise you.
Think of glass and perhaps a bottle or jar might come to mind, or the screen of your mobile phone or maybe the windscreen of your car, but the adaptability and non-toxic nature of glass means it has an important role to play in many other areas too. For example, it is used in medical devices such as health scanners and dental equipment. It’s used in hip joint replacements and prosthetics and used in implants that monitor conditions such as diabetes.
It's good to see then that the uniqueness of glass is being formally recognised by the United Nations, who has declared 2022 as the International Year of Glass (IYOG2022).
Dave Dalton, CEO of British Glass, the UK glass industry’s representative body, believes this appreciation is long overdue.
“Glass has such a great story to tell. It’s completely renewable and can go on being remade forever, making it the perfect sustainable material for today and the future."
“What’s fascinating, is that even with its many applications today, glass has yet to reach its full potential as a technology. This is because it hasn’t had the same investment from industry that other materials such as plastics and metals have had. I hope IYOG2022 will be an opportunity to change this by helping showcase what a truly remarkable material it is”.
It’s understood that the first man-made glass was created around 3,500BC in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia, although naturally occurring glass was being used as tools by people long before this.
“Forms of glass can be created by volcanic methods or lightning strikes on sand. We know that some ancient peoples turned this found glass into tools, because it was hard and could be made into something sharp” said Dave.
“This type of glass, known as obsidian, has even been found on Mars”.
Closer to home, bottle and jars are the most popular use for today’s man-made glass. Around 70% of all this glass packaging is recovered for recycling in the UK with this increasing to nearly 90% in Wales, currently the third best performing country for glass recycling in the world.
Glass is non-toxic and won’t interact with what it contains, making it an enduring popular choice for packaging food and drink. Despite this, some claim that because glass weighs more than other packaging materials, it is less sustainable.
“Weight will become a non-issue as transport moves to electric. This will happen, as will the decarbonisation of the glass manufacturing process. There’s no reason why we can’t melt glass with 100% renewable electricity rather than gas. As an industry, we are absolutely committed to zero emissions”.
Glass is also playing a role in helping others achieve zero carbon emissions. Dave says that transparent solar glass will help revolutionise energy use in buildings, as is the case with The Crystal building venue in London’s Royal Docks: “The triple glazing allows in 70 per cent of the light needed, but only 30 per cent of the solar energy so it doesn’t overheat” he explains.
“Solar panels help power the building and because it uses nothing but sustainable fuel, the heating bill is negligible”.
These sorts of applications and others yet undiscovered are why glass deserves its year in the spotlight with IYOG2022, which had its official launch in Geneva at the UN Palace of Nations on 10th February. Dave adds: “I’m a chemist by training so am always fascinated by the alchemy of glass. What blows my mind is its sheer versatility. You just put a pinch of something into it – and it will transform”. A true shapeshifter, glass isn’t classified as a solid, liquid or a gas and is highly adaptable by nature.
As for the future, Dave can see glass continuing to delight and surprise
“I’d like to see the intelligent bottle where it tells you when the beer is at the right temperature to drink or whether it needs to stay in the fridge a bit longer. Glass has the ability to do this now. We have the technology but need the engineering investment to make it a reality”.
So the more brands and investors are aware of the untapped potential of glass, the more we will see exciting innovations like this arrive on the market. It seems the International Year of Glass 2022 couldn’t have come at a better time.