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Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum

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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

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.

Glass

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.

Cans

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.

Plastic

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.

Glass

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.

Cans

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.

Plastic

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

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.

Cans

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

Read More:
How Many Times Can That Be Recycled?
Which Is Better? Plastic vs. Glass Food Storage Containers
The Verdict Is In: Keep the Bottle Caps On

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Lauren Murphy

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.

Latest posts by Lauren Murphy (see all)

Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum – August 11, 2017
Is Starbucks Doing Enough to Recycle Its Cups? – July 18, 2017
6 Simple Swaps for a Green 4th of July  – June 30, 2017

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Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum

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The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

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The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: September 7, 2010

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER When and how did the universe begin? Why are we here? What is the nature of reality? Is the apparent “grand design” of our universe evidence of a benevolent creator who set things in motion—or does science offer another explanation? In this startling and lavishly illustrated book, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow present the most recent scientific thinking about these and other abiding mysteries of the universe, in nontechnical language marked by brilliance and simplicity. According to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence or history. The authors explain that we ourselves are the product of quantum fluctuations in the early universe, and show how quantum theory predicts the “multiverse”—the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. They conclude with a riveting assessment of M-theory, an explanation of the laws governing our universe that is currently the only viable candidate for a “theory of everything”: the unified theory that Einstein was looking for, which, if confirmed, would represent the ultimate triumph of human reason.

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The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

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Theoretical vs. Experimental Physics: Quien Es Mas Macho?

Mother Jones

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Warning! I have not followed Deflategate except in passing.1 I don’t have the kind of grassy knoll knowledge of what happened that lots of people seem to. The naive question that I’m about to pose may inspire jeers in those of you who have immersed yourselves in it.

Anyway: the first thing that I and thousands of other geeky types thought of when Deflategate first burst onto the scene was the Ideal Gas Law. I didn’t actually try to calculate anything, but I remember vaguely thinking that the temperature probably dropped about 5 percent between the locker room and the field, so the pressure in the footballs might plausibly have dropped about 5 percent too. Then again, maybe the volume of the footballs changed slightly. Hmmm. Then I got sick and didn’t care anymore—about Deflategate or anything else. Joe Nocera writes about this today:

John Leonard is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology….When the Deflategate story broke after last year’s A.F.C. championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts in January, he found himself fixated on it….“Of course, I thought of the Ideal Gas Law right away,” Leonard says, “but there was no data to test it.”

….In May, the data arrived….Numbers in hand, Leonard went to work. He bought the same gauges the N.F.L. used to measure p.s.i. levels. He bought N.F.L.-quality footballs. He replicated the temperatures of the locker room, and the colder field. And so on….The drop in the Patriots’ footballs’ p.s.i was consistent with the Ideal Gas Law.

By early November, he had a PowerPoint presentation with more than 140 slides….A viewer who watched the lengthy lecture edited it down to a crisp 15 minutes….It is utterly convincing.

This is what’s always puzzled me. You don’t need to be an MIT professor of Measurement and Instrumentation to get a good sense of what happened, and you don’t need to spend a year pondering the minutiae of the Ideal Gas Law and writing 140 slides about it. Get a bag of footballs, inflate them to 12.5 psi, and take them outside on a 50-degree day. Wait an hour and measure them again. Maybe do this a few times under different conditions (wet vs. dry, different gauges, etc.). It would take a day or two at most.2 The league office could have instructed the referees to do this quick test just to see if 11.3 psi footballs were plausibly legal, and that might have been the end of it. Why didn’t that happen? Why didn’t lots of people try this? Even if you only have one football to your name, it wouldn’t be hard to at least get a rough idea. Inflate it, put it in your refrigerator for an hour, and then remeasure it.

Since I wasn’t paying attention, it’s quite possible that lots of people did this. Did they? Did the league? What happened here?

1Yuk yuk.

2Because I’m an optimistic guy, I’m just going to assume that this would be done in at least a minimally rigorous way. Nothing that would be necessary for publication in Nature. Just good enough to satisfy Mr. Lantz, my high school physics teacher.

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Theoretical vs. Experimental Physics: Quien Es Mas Macho?

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Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” will be new head of Greenpeace USA

Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” will be new head of Greenpeace USA

Story of Stuff Project

Today, Greenpeace USA announced that Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, will take the reins as the organization’s new executive director.

Leonard launched what became the Story of Stuff Project in 2007 with a 20-minute web video (you can watch it below). The video examined, to put it succinctly, where the hell all our stuff comes from and where it ends up, and in doing so, she got lots of people to think critically about the ugly underpinnings of our consumer society.

The Story of Stuff turned into the little viral video that could. It beget a whole series of explainer videos, a bestselling book, and even a movement.

Leonard actually got her start at Greenpeace International in the late ’80’s, and even back then she was tracking the lifespan of seemingly mundane objects. She investigated what was happening to all the hazardous waste produced by companies in industrialized countries (spoiler alert: they were sending it to developing countries).

Leonard will start her new gig in August, replacing the outgoing executive director, Phil Radford. We’ll be interviewing her shortly, so stay tuned …

Eve Andrews is a Grist fellow and new Seattle transplant via the mean streets of Chicago, Poughkeepsie, and Pittsburgh, respectively and in order of meanness. Follow her on Twitter.

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Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” will be new head of Greenpeace USA

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