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Aluminium vs plastic cups: Shift in disposable culture the critical issue

Updated: Aug 9, 2023


The author of a landmark UK review into the economic value of nature, the University of Cambridge economist Professor Partha Dasgupta, this week warned that humans are exploiting nature beyond its limits. Due to the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, sustainable alternatives are being sought for everyday products.

Humans use about 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute in total, Earthday.org reported last year. Approximately 91% of plastic is not recycled. Roughly half of the global annual plastic production is destined for a single-use product.

If plastic pollution is not curbed, it is estimated that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight. At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Many countries lack the infrastructure to prevent plastic pollution such as sanitary landfills; incineration facilities; recycling capacity and circular economy infrastructure; proper management and disposal of waste systems.

In the last two years, the Super Bowl and the US Open golf tournament that took place at the weekend, among other USPGA tournaments, have started using aluminium instead of plastic cups. Ball Corporation, a leading global provider of sustainable aluminium cans, cups and bottles, also helped Coldplay advance its commitment to making the 2022 Music Of The Spheres World Tour as environmentally beneficial as possible.


Disposable Aluminum Cups

Reusable aluminium cups were once again distributed at the US Open golf tournament at the weekend to eliminate 500 000 single-use plastic cups. Photo: USOpen.com


Aluminium cans have on average 68% recycled content compared to just 3% for plastic in the United States, Environmental Protection Agency data shows. Aluminium cups, however, do not eliminate the environmental impact of cup production but rather shift it to a different stage.

At aluminium’s most polluting level, a 330ml can is responsible for 1 300 grams of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the analysis compiled for Reuters, roughly equating to the emissions produced by driving a car 7 to 8km.

On the other hand, a plastic bottle of the same size, made from the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic typically used, accounts for up to 330 grams.

The better approach would be to avoid disposables altogether at these large venues and smaller food service locations. The root of the problem, of course, lies with our disposable culture, which “normalises” the use of indestructible and precious resources to briefly “serve” us.

Rosemarie Downey, global head of packaging research at Euromonitor International, told Reuters that adopting circular design principles in packaging, which consider the entire life cycle of a product, including use and reuse, is one way for brands to address surplus waste at the outset and can assist recovery, recycling, and reuse in order to reduce the damaging impact of plastic waste in the environment.

In 2021, global bottled water sales reached 350 billion litres and were valued at an estimated $270 billion, a figure expected to soar to $500 billion by 2030.

“Ultimately, mindful consumption of plastic is a global duty of everyone. Consumers have their part to play to help realise zero-litter, as do corporate players in their use and handling and governments in providing the necessary, optimised waste management infrastructure,” Downey said.


Carbon footprint of PET
Carbon Footprint of Aluminium cans

Environmental impact of aluminium

Aluminium is an energy-intensive material to produce. The extraction, refining and shaping of aluminium require significant amounts of electricity, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The production of aluminium cans emits about 4–5 times more carbon than plastic or glass bottles.

Conversely, plastic cups typically have lower energy demands during their manufacturing process. To truly address environmental concerns, we should focus on reducing energy-intensive production processes overall, rather than simply swapping one material for another.

Aluminum is made from extracting ore, which is called bauxite. Harmful effects of bauxite mining, which is irreversible, have been recorded across the globe and include pollution of air, water, and soil quality as well as social justice implications.

Through the washing and processing required to turn bauxite to aluminium, harmful chemicals and minerals are released into waterways, often turning them a toxic red.

The clear-cutting of mass lands has a multi-generational impact on biodegradation, habitat loss and erosion, not to mention the mass displacement of people.


Bauxite mining

The environmental impact of bauxite mining in Ghana is irreversible. Photo: Vale.com


Recycling challenges

Aluminium cups are often touted as recyclable and while aluminium is infinitely recyclable, the reality is that many cups do not end up being recycled.

Proper recycling infrastructure and facilities are required for effective recycling, but these are often lacking. Additionally, the collection and sorting processes for aluminium cups can be inefficient and expensive.

As a result, a significant portion of aluminium cups ends up in landfills or incinerators, contributing to environmental degradation.

Transportation impact

Aluminium cups are heavier than plastic cups, which leads to increased transportation costs and fuel consumption. Shipping large quantities of aluminium cups requires more energy, further contributing to carbon emissions.

Plastic cups, being lightweight, can be transported more efficiently, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It is crucial to consider the entire life cycle of a product and assess its environmental impact holistically.

Human health

Both aluminium itself and the plastic linings used for food products have adverse effects on human health. Most aluminium containers use some form of lining to prevent the contents from absorbing a metallic taste. These linings are made of bisphenols, which have been shown to have endocrine-disrupting properties.

Aluminium is present in many other products, including cosmetics, baking tools and, of course, aluminium foil.

Researchers from Universidad De La Laguna, Tenerife, have shown that aluminium compounds are present in drinking water, helping to purify it, as well as being an additive in processed foods, where they serve a range of purposes, including as an emulsifying agent and a food colourant.

Sometimes, fresh fruit or vegetables contain aluminum compounds. This happens because human activities, such as mining, have contaminated the soil with aluminium.

Some cosmetic products, particularly deodorants, contain aluminium salts that manufacturers include to enhance the products’ antiperspirant effects.

A new official report from the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, or Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin, Germany, indicates that while dietary exposure to aluminium compounds has been on the decline, people still ingest a relatively high amount of aluminium from other sources, which may prove harmful to health.


cans on ocean floor

In the aquatic environment, aluminium acts as a toxic agent on animals that use gill-breathing such as fish and invertebrates. Photo: http://oceancrusaders.org/aluminium-cans/


Effect of aluminium on aquatic life

Do we know if aluminium releases any toxins after sitting in the ocean for decades/centuries?

Aluminum does not create the life-threatening and unsightly waste gyres in the middle of the ocean as plastic does.

Yet, what do we know about the impact of aluminium cans laying at the bottom of the ocean? What kind of toxins might they be leaching when sitting in salt water for years, decades, and perhaps centuries?

Is keeping plastic out of the ocean an acceptable justification for wiping out more land-based habitats?

Though not discussed often, aluminium is one of the significant sources of water pollution primarily due to its abundant natural occurrence and industrial use. The Water Center University of Pennsylvania reported in 2019 that there has been a proven negative impact of aluminium on a number of beneficial freshwater algae species, while, in 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the toxic effects of aluminium on aquatic life.

High levels of aluminium are observed predominantly in freshwater compared to marine water as low pH of freshwater compared to ocean water favours its solubility.

"Freshwater algae are crucial to maintaining a healthy synergistic ecosystem as they increase the bioavailability of dissolved oxygen for the organisms underneath. The toxicity of aluminium on aquatic life, however, depends on various physicochemical factors such as water pH, temperature and salt level," the Water Center reported

"On the flip side, use of aluminium is well known in controlling toxic algal blooms where it acts by cutting off an essential nutrient (phosphorus) supply. Even though the low concentration of aluminium in water is not extremely toxic, the downstream industrial point sources of aluminium-rich process water are a threat to the natural ecosystem.

"In the aquatic environment, aluminium acts as a toxic agent on animals that use gill-breathing such as fish and invertebrates, by causing a loss of their osmoregulatory function (i.e., maintaining appropriate body pressure in water by aquatic organisms by controlling the uptake of salts and ions from water). Aluminium can also react with other chemical contaminants in the water leading to unforeseen impacts on biodiversity.

"Even though it is often stated that low concentrations do not negatively impact aquatic life, chronic exposure to these levels has been observed to be toxic to certain species of aquatic plants, zebrafish, fathead minnow, rotifers, and snails.

"While there is a handful of literature studying the effect of aluminium on aquatic life, this is an ongoing topic of discussion as the aluminium level in water is a function of physical, chemical and environmental conditions of an aquatic ecosystem. Nevertheless, not following regulatory guidelines on acceptable aluminium levels is always a threat as this metal can eventually enter the human food chain via drinking water."

A conceptual model showing aluminium sources, the fate of transport and its effect on aquatic life

A conceptual model showing aluminium sources, the fate of transport and its effect on aquatic life, based on a US Environmental Protection Agency study in 2018.


A complex issue

Bruce Karas, an executive at Coca-Cola North America in charge of environment and sustainability, acknowledged the conflicting environmental pressures at play, Reuters reported.

“When we look at a different material, you look at all of the levers: the carbon footprint, consumer preference, energy, water,” he said.

“There’s a mix, there are some things that are not that desirable, but if you have five good things and one that isn’t, we’ll all have to make decisions. It’ll never be that clean.”

“It’s a complex picture, certainly,” said Simon Lowden, an executive who leads Pepsi’s plastics drive. “You have to think about transport, secondary packaging, time in store, all those considerations come into play.”

Because aluminium is lightweight and cans make efficient use of space, less transport is usually needed than for plastics or glass, while less power is also needed to chill drinks in cans - particularly useful in tropical climes.

“That means in some markets aluminium would actually not produce as much greenhouse gas,” Lowden said.


Economics, consumer convenience key factors

With simple economics a major factor, according to industry experts, the $270 billion-a-year bottled water industry won't easily be dethroned, if ever. This is because aluminium is more expensive than plastic - the raw material cost for a can is about 25-30% higher than a PET bottle of a similar volume, according to analyst Uday Patel at consultancy Wood Mackenzie, Reuters reported.

A broad shift to aluminium cans would raise costs for drinks companies, also including new manufacturing infrastructure, some of which are likely to be passed on to consumers.

Another key factor is consumer convenience. How often do people down bottles of water in one go? While advances are being made in can technology, most cans are opened and stay open, while bottles can be recapped.

Plastic water bottles can also be sold in a range of sizes, while cans are more limited.

As a result of such factors, drinks giants are cautious.

“It’s not necessarily saying we’re pulling the plug on plastic, it’s really looking at how do consumers react to canned water,” said Karas.

Comprehensive approach needed

Rather than relying solely on the replacement of plastic with aluminium cups, a more sustainable and comprehensive approach is necessary. This approach should encompass multiple strategies such as reducing overall cup consumption, encouraging the use of reusable cups, investing in alternative materials with lower environmental footprints, and improving recycling infrastructure.

Embracing innovation and exploring biodegradable or compostable cup materials could also be part of the solution.



Conclusion

While aluminium cups may seem like a step in the right direction, they are not a definitive long-term solution to environmental conservation. The manufacturing process, energy consumption, recycling challenges, and transportation impact associated with aluminium cups all contribute to their limitations as sustainable alternatives to save the environment.

It is crucial to adopt a comprehensive approach that addresses the entire life cycle of cup production and consumption, focusing on reducing waste, improving recycling systems, and exploring alternative materials. We can only achieve lasting positive change for the environment through such holistic strategies.


A concurring viewpoint

Berna Tural wrote in BeNatural.World: “The better approach is to reconsider the bigger picture and cause a systemic change — what if we could avoid disposables altogether at these large venues and smaller food service locations?

"What if we changed our disposable culture — the culture that “normalises” the use of indestructible and precious resources to “serve” us for less than 10 minutes? What if everything was served on reusable high-quality materials that are themselves part of a closed-loop system?

“Let’s slow down a bit, take a step back. Sit down in a café, sip your coffee from a ceramic mug, and consider the bigger picture and longer-lasting effects of our “solutions.”

‘’What might seem impossible today is surely possible tomorrow. There is someone today who’s making space travel a household thing, and creating a global infrastructure for more efficient energy use from cars to homes to ships, for all to use.

“Let’s focus on possibilities and together create probabilities rather than settling into something that only promises to cause more pain down the road.

"If we can dream about going to a different planet on a future family vacation within our lifetime, we can certainly dream about improving our own behaviour on this planet now.”



* I'm Not Plastic's vision is to encourage people to embrace an authentic lifestyle, in which single-use plastic and food waste are eliminated.



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