Like a good Californian -- and believe me, there are bad ones -- I'm a neurotic environmentalist and sustainability nut. Sure, those are easy claims to make these days when so many of the permaculture movement's hangers-on are so shallow (scroll down for painfully hilarious article commentary). But I really do lose quite a bit of sleep worrying about where the things we consume actually come from and where they go, and what they're made of, and how much energy is used to produce and recycle them, and whether the material is carcinogenic and/or toxic. Even the word "recycling" is fairly meaningless until we define our terms and look closer into the process at the local and larger scales.
I've never wanted to be one of "those" people, and I'll readily concede that I'm still sometimes guilty of choosing convenience over correctness, but I do try. Someone's gotta. The most important thing to remember re sustainability is to choose your battles wisely. Environmental, financial, social, and personal health concerns often have their own separate sets of issues and mitigation tactics. Figure out what's most important to you and fight the good fight, but don't put yourself in the looney bin if you can't be all things to all species. That said, don't be superficial either; think holistically about the world you'll be passing down to your kids.
A while ago, I picked up Daniel Imhoff's Paper Or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World (Sierra Club Books, 2005). The book is a well-researched info guide to one of the world's biggest industries, demystifying what most of us take for granted -- the stuff our stuff comes in. I appreciate the at-a-glance sidebar blurbs, such as the one I'm excerpting below, "Beverage Containers":
Advantages: Convenient, lightweight, and easily compressible.
Challenges: These multilayered, nonrecyclable materials are destined for the landfill. Soft-drink companies are rapidly adopting this packaging system, often to package a high-fructose product.
Single-Serving Plastic Bottle (accompanied by pictures of the various bottles mentioned below)
Advantages: Flexible and lightweight. Sometimes burned for energy generation.
Challenges: Only #1 and #2 have high-end recycling markets. Plastic #3-#7 lack a strong recycling infrastructure. Pollute waterways and marine areas. Oxygen barriers, fillers, and other coatings on bottles prohibit recycling. Plasticizers and other additives can potentially be toxic.
Gable-Top Carton (e.g. cardboard container of milk)
Advantages: Long-distance solution. Can be repulped and downcycled into paper towels and tissue paper at the end of life.
Challenges: Only reprocessed in certain markets. Can rot if not collected and reprocessed in a timely manner.
Advantages: Easy to recycle and has fairly brisk recycling markets in many areas of the world. Very strong material.
Challenges: Virgin aluminum is extremely energy-intensive. The mining and production of virgin aluminum has heavy impacts on habitats, particularly aquatic systems. Ultimately, it rusts and breaks down. While recycling does save considerable energy, the cans are not refillable.
Single-Serving Glass Bottle
Advantages: Highly recyclable. Strong markets for glass recycling in many regions of the country. Efficient use of materials.
Challenges: Heavier than many plastics and often not seen as desirable for long-distance transport of beverages. Doesn't biodegrade.
Refillable Glass Bottle
Advantages: Highly reusable. Ultimately recyclable. Works on a refill deposit system.
Challenges: Heavy weight limits the glass bottle to short-distance transport and therefore favors local food producers. Requires producer and consumer commitment or strict legislation.