Aluminum Bottles Are Not "The Greenest Bottle"

CC BY 2.0. Canned beer/ Lloyd Alter

Aluminum is replacing plastic to deceive "environmentally conscious consumers" into buying an equally damaging single use container.

In the province of Ontario, 96 percent of beer bottles are refilled up to 15 times before they are recycled. There is a deposit on wine bottles so almost all of them are recycled. It's clear to anyone who ever had a beer that refillable glass bottles are the greenest packaging you can get. But that didn't stop the Toronto Star writers who should know better from picking up a Bloomberg story and title it Aluminum emerging as greenest bottle. It's obviously not.

In the original Bloomberg article, the authors write:

The drive to turn products more eco-friendly is sweeping through the U.S. beverage market, with plastic being replaced in everything from red Solo cups to Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. water bottles. In place of the petrochemical material, aluminum is emerging as a more sustainable option to cater to environmentally conscious consumers.

But it is really about deceiving environmentally conscious consumers who feel guilty about plastic. The companies know that only half of aluminum packaging is recycled, and they know how aluminum is made.

mining bauxite

© Getty Images/ mining bauxite, the source of Alumina

The problem is that aluminum is not green, because every time they come up with an idea like this, demand for aluminum goes up, and there is not enough recycled aluminum, which means there has to be more production of virgin aluminum, which has a vast carbon and environmental footprint. From the bauxite mining to the separation of the alumina to the electricity required to smelt it, making virgin aluminum is a huge problem. (I covered this in greater detail here.)

There is not enough supply in the USA to meet demand, so imports are increasing. This can be a good thing if it comes from Scandinavia or Canada where the electricity comes from hydro power, but even the cleanest smelter still puts out CO2; it's the basic chemistry for getting the oxide out of aluminum oxide. According to Bloomberg:

About 15% of U.S. consumption of aluminum can sheet is expected to come from imports this year, compared with 10% last year and 7% in 2017, according to Wood Mackenzie. The American market is also expected to record a deficit of 200,000 tons this year, up from a shortfall of 115,000 tons in 2018 and 80,000 tons in 2017.

Most of those imports are coming from China and Saudi Arabia, of all places, and are probably smelted with coal or gas power. But as Carl A. Zimrig noted in his book Aluminum Upcycled,

As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation.

We have to capture and recycle all the aluminum out there (only 50 percent of cans are recycled now) and we have to use more of the recycled aluminum. Right now, car, airplane and computer makers don't use regular recycled aluminum and Apple's much-vaunted recycled Macbook Air is made from preconsumer waste from their own manufacturing. Otherwise they want high quality virgin stuff.

We have to stop making the new stuff, and stop promoting cans as being green. Bloomberg titled their article Aluminum is replacing plastic as the greenest bottle and I won't say they are lying, but they are wrong. The greenest bottle is refillable, as is done with beer all over the world except the USA, and could be done for a lot of other products.

Perhaps you are perfectly happy drinking out of a Saudi Arabian beer can lined with endocrine-disrupting BPA epoxy, but you could also demand refillable glass if you really are this environmentally conscious consumer. We need to build a circular, closed-loop economy, and there's no room in it for one-way cans or bottles.