We’ve all been guilty of buying an unsustainable beverage every once in a while, but when faced with the perplexing conundrum of whether to grab that plastic bottle or aluminum can, which do you believe to be more environmentally-friendly?

aluminum cans and plastic bottles in the garbage

The history of plastic goes back to the early 1900s when the first fully synthetic plastic was invented as an alternative to the shellac used in electronic insulation. During World War II, plastic production increased by 300% in the United States as it was used for everything, from nylon in ropes and parachutes to plexiglass in airplane windows. After the war, commercial use of plastic had completely taken off and incorporated into virtually every product and market in modern life. By the 1960s, the first occurrence of plastic pollution in the oceans was recorded.

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Today, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 80% of the marine debris found in our oceans originated as land-based trash that was not recycled. Over 90% of the plastics found in the ocean is comprised of microplastics, which commonly end up ingested by aquatic animals, often killing them through choking or toxicity. The National Geographic Society found that 91% of the world’s plastic was not recycled in 2018. That alarming statistic means that all but 9% of plastic waste ends up either in landfills or in the ocean.

Plastic bottles are made from petroleum, or “crude oil.” Oil drilling, also known as fracking, wastes water, releases methane into the atmosphere, produces oil spills and generally wreaks havoc on the environment. Plastic bottles are typically too thin to recycle into more plastic bottles, but the material can be made into fibers for things like carpets, clothing and sleeping bags. In 2018, the recycling rate for plastic bottles was just over 29%.

The use of aluminum cans was first introduced to the general public in 1959 by Coors. About five years later, Royal Crown Cola brought aluminum into the soft drinks game with their RC Cola and Diet Rite. Since then, they’ve been used for everything from energy drinks and sparkling waters to sodas and wine. Aluminum offered an affordable alternative to steel as well as a more convenient surface for company printed text and graphics. Aluminum cans can be recycled into more cans in a true “closed-loop” recycling process. In 2018 the recycling rate for aluminum cans was 49.8%.

The liquid inside the aluminum can benefit from the material as well, since aluminum blocks light, moisture and oxygen from permeating the outside. This makes the drinks more sustainable, as they have a longer shelf-life. Lightweight cans have only decreased in weight over the years, with the first aluminum cans weighing about three ounces per unit and modern cans weighing less than half an ounce. Typically recycling programs value aluminum over plastic or glass, with the former holding $1,317 worth of value per ton of recyclable material versus plastic’s $299 per ton. This allows more municipal recycling programs to stay in service. IFC International, a global management consulting and technology company, found in a 2016 study that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation and refrigeration of aluminum are 7 to 21 percent lower than that of plastic and 35 to 49 percent lower than glass.

The easy-to-recycle aluminum material doesn’t stop there; the shiny stuff’s strength is another advantage. According to the Aluminum Association, four six-packs can hold up a two-ton vehicle thanks to the packaging’s aversion to rust, corrosion and ability to withhold carbonation pressure. This stamina allows companies to package and transport more product using less material.

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When it comes to the amount of recycled material found in cans versus plastic bottles, aluminum has the upper hand, as well. In 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency found that aluminum cans contain three times the amount of recycled content than plastic. They also estimated that aluminum cans are made up of 73% recycled material on average. 

Aluminum doesn’t occur in nature and is primarily comprised of bauxite rock, which is primarily found in Australia, India and Brazil. Collecting bauxite comprises of open-pit mining, which usually involves moving or bulldozing large amounts of vegetation and surface rocks. This type of mining negatively affects ecosystems and creates air and water pollution, which can cause health issues for wildlife and humans. Not to mention, the combination of electrolysis and chemical processing that it takes to turn bauxite into conventional aluminum takes a large amount of heat and energy. However, the Aluminum Association assures that land conservation has become an important focus among bauxite mining. Topsoil from the site is stored to be replaced after the process is finished, so “an average of 80 percent of the land mined for bauxite is returned to its native ecosystem.”

So how can you make sure you’re not contributing to plastic or aluminum pollution? Always reach for that reusable water bottle before going out! Fill it with water, soda, juice or whatever you like. For those unavoidable times when you end up with plastic or aluminum waste, get some inspiration for recycling through Inhabitat!

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