With summer winding down, it’s hard not to spend every waking (and maybe non-waking) minute outside. That means a whole lot of hikes, cookouts and outdoor fun. You’ve got a handle on green camping hacks and eco-friendly picnic essentials — now let’s zoom in on beverage containers.
Beverages are essential when it comes to outdoor soirees. When picking them out at the store, you’re faced with a few options: plastic bottles, glass bottles or aluminum cans. What to choose? The decision can be daunting for environmentalists. We’re here to give you the lowdown on which of these receptacles gets the planet’s stamp of approval.
Step 1: How They’re Made
We see beverage containers constantly — lining the shelves of the grocery store, filling coolers at BBQs, quenching a beachgoer’s thirst. Just how did they get there?
Plastic manufacturing starts off with oil and natural gas. These raw materials are converted into smaller pieces called monomers, and are then chemically bonded together to create long chains, known as polymers. These polymers are the plastic you see in the form of water bottles, food packaging and much more.
To get to the crude oil and natural gas needed to produce plastics, we must head for the earth’s crust. However, oil and natural gas is buried beneath layers of bedrock — that’s where drilling comes in. Drilling for oil in our pristine oceans and fracking for natural gas in America’s West is destroying our environment.
Liquefied sand, soda ash (naturally occurring sodium carbonate), limestone, recycled glass and various additives make up the glass bottles we use to hold our beverages.
Using limestone prevents glass from weathering and is thus a valuable raw material for glass containers. The sedimentary rock is typically mined from a quarry — either above or below ground. In terms of the environment, limestone mining may contaminate water and contribute to noise pollution. Limestone mining can also destroy habitat for animals who live in their cave ecosystem and can form a permanent scar on the landscape.
It’s safe to say that the raw materials that go into making glass bottles are widely available in the U.S.
New aluminum cans are almost always made from bauxite, a mineral that the U.S. gets from mines in countries like Guinea and Australia. The mining of bauxite is harsh on the planet — raw bauxite is discovered by way of open-pit mining, essentially scraping a pit into the landscape and leaving environmental destruction behind. Bauxite mining contributes to habitat loss and water contamination, as well as a slew of other negative environmental impacts, like increased erosion.
Step 2: Transport
When getting from here to there, each container has a different footprint.
The environmental cost of transporting plastic bottles can exceed even those of creating the plastic bottle in the first place. This isn’t always the case — it depends on the distance of transport — but it’s a throttling idea.
For short distances, plastic bottles have a low transportation footprint. They pack tightly — companies are definitely responding to greener consumers and are keeping sustainability in mind when designing the shapes of their bottles. They’re also very lightweight, meaning less fuel is consumed during shipping.
There’s one big, undeniable eco-unfriendly aspect of glass bottles — they’re heavy. The transportation of glass bottles requires significantly more energy than their lightweight counterparts. Glass is fragile, too, so they can’t be packed into a truck as tightly as aluminum and plastic can.
Americans love cans because they are small, lightweight and airtight. Turns out, the planet does, too. Their size means they save fuel — more cans can fit into a smaller space and their light weight means less gas to get them from point A to point B. Because aluminum isn’t particularly fragile, cans use less cardboard packaging when transported as well, meaning more room for more cans.
Step 3: Where They End Up
Empty — now what? Each of these containers is recyclable. Here’s how they match up.
The recycling rate of plastics is actually quite low — in 2014, only 9.5 percent of plastic material generated in the U.S. was recycled. The rest was combusted for energy or sent to a landfill where its fate is uncertain — it can either find its way out and pollute our planet or sit there for up to 500 years before finally decomposing.
Glass bottles are 100 percent recyclable and an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles. Once you toss your glass bottle in the recycling bin, manufacturers can have it back onto the shelves in a month. Plus, using recycled glass when making new glass bottles reduces the manufacturer’s carbon footprint — furnaces may run at lower temperatures when recycled glass is used because it is already melted down to the right consistency.
Like glass, aluminum cans are completely recyclable and are commonly recycled worldwide as part of municipal recycling programs. Aluminum cans can be recycled repeatedly with no limit.
In her book, The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard notes that we are currently recycling only 45 percent of cans. That calls for a lot of pit mining for bauxite to make new material. According to Leonard, more than a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in landfills since 1972, when such records began.
And the Winner Is…
If they are made from 100 percent recycled material, aluminum cans should be your top choice when shopping for picnic beverages. Their low transportation footprint and ease of recyclability make them a winner.
However, the extraction of raw bauxite is detrimental to the planet. New aluminum cans are not eco-friendly.
Glass should be your pick if recycled cans are not an option. Glass bottles are made from relatively innocuous raw materials and is, like aluminum cans, completely recyclable. Their bulky size and transportation footprint is their downfall.
Plastic does have a small carbon footprint when it comes to transportation, but it’s tough to ignore the giant carbon footprint when it comes to extraction. Plus, the plastic that doesn’t end up in a recycling bin can be a huge pollutant in our environment, killing wildlife and contaminating ecosystems. With using plastic, the planet is ravaged.
Feature images courtesy of Shutterstock
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Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
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Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum