Surely the 2020 Super Bowl gave us something to cheer about: A true win against plastic pollution and reducing the generation of single-use plastic waste! Vendors were finally able to drastically reduce plastic waste from single-use plastic cups for beer and other drinks. That’s keeping tons of plastic waste out of the waste stream thus from potentially reaching the environment or Ocean.
Before we start celebrating: Can we pause and ask whether replacing single-use plastic with single-use aluminum is truly a “solution”?
It is a step in the right direction, but really just a stepping stone. If there’s one thing we must have learned from our previous “solutions” (fixes like finding the “convenient” replacement to dishwashing with throw-away dixie cups, or finding a replacement to plastic through “bio-degradables”) — it’s that without an end-to-end full life-cycle consideration, band-aid solutions create a different, more complex, and often, costlier problem. Losing sight of the big picture (cleaner better planet) we claim victory over smaller wins (avoiding plastic) and short-sighted solutions (alternative disposables).
We can apply what we now know. When single-use plastics became ubiquitous we didn’t consider where the materials came from, how they were produced, their impact on human health, where they were to be discarded, how their recycling would (or wouldn’t) work, and what would ultimately happen to them at the very end. Though we might not have all the answers, we now know to ask these questions. Simply considering the same points about replacement products, might be helpful in raising flags and finding out what does, and doesn’t work.
Is aluminum the environmentally friendly alternative to address the waste problem?
What many celebrated as the Super Bowl’s sustainability victory is just a replacement of plastic with aluminum. It’s premised on aluminum being more environmentally friendly, more easily recyclable than the single-use plastic cups and is less detrimental to the environment — because they get captured and recycled. Though these statements might be partially true — they are short of grasping the full picture.
Here are a few facts about aluminum:
1 — Production — causes irreversible habitat loss as well as releasing toxins into soil, water and air.
Aluminum is made from extracting ore — called bauxite. The image below shows its impact on the environment. Harmful effects of bauxite mining have been recorded across the globe from Jamaica to Malaysia to East India to Ghana to name a few. The environmental loss is permanent and includes pollution of air, water, and soil quality as well as social justice implications.
The production of aluminum cans emits about 4–5 times more carbon than plastic or glass bottles. The process is very energy intensive and requires multiple stages of extreme heat — usually generated via coal powered plants. Regardless of the energy source, they emit dangerous amounts of toxins into the air.
Production of aluminum causes multiple types of environmental pollution -
- Air — during the process the toxins released create a higher volume of greenhouse gases than the production of plastic.
- Water — through the washing and processing required to turn bauxite to aluminum, harmful chemicals and minerals are released into waterways, often turning them a toxic red.
- Soil — clear cutting of mass lands have multi-generational impact on biodegradation, habitat loss, and erosion, not to mention the mass displacement of people.
2 — Recycling — recovery rate is lower than 50% and entails high carbon emissions
Aluminum is being recycled “more” than plastic — and it’s still at less than 50%. In 2018 the recycling rate for aluminum jumped up to 49%, recording a 5 point jump from 2017. However, according to EPA data the recycling rate for aluminum containers is as low as 37% when isolated from other types of aluminum products.
Sure, a 50% recycling rate is still much better than the 38% recorded for plastics in the US, or the global ubiquitous measly 9% of all plastics ever made. Still — the number is extremely low — pointing at the amount of aluminum lost to landfills and the environment.
Let’s also consider t the recycling process for aluminum cans. Recycling aluminum requires extremely high heat and the use of water and other chemicals to strip non-aluminum content off the cans (labels, BPA/BPS linings etc.) So in addition to the recyclability of aluminum we also need to consider the environmental impact of the actual recycling process. Surely, recycling the material entails lower emissions than its virgin production — but how does that compare to reuse, such as in a closed loop circular system using higher quality products, thus with a lower need for recycling?
3 — Recycled content — requires mixing with virgin aluminum and likely using plastic lining
Aluminum cans can be produced using a higer percentage of recycled content (up to 68%) than bottles and other plastic materials (3%) in the US. A strong argument in favor of aluminum is that it can be infinitely recycled. AND there is always at least 30% virgin content in cans made from highest recycled content. Meaning they still cause the unsightly environmental damage of bauxite mining. Switching from single-use plastic to single-use aluminum (cups, plates etc.) will require an unrealistic increase in aluminum production. Even if aluminum is recycled at optimal rates — a fair portion of virgin aluminum is required for its production to meet the single-use volume that is needed today.
4 — Human Health — both aluminum itself and the plastic linings used for food products have adverse effects on human health.
Aluminum also has adverse impacts on human health. Most aluminum containers use some form of lining to prevent the contents from absorbing a metallic taste. These linings are made of Bisphenols that have been shown to have endocrine disrupting properties. From BPA linings to exposure of aluminum to foods (the reason BPA linings were used in the first place) the health effects have been shown for decades now. Remember the time when we stopped using aluminum in cooking pots and pans?
If aluminum doesn’t have BPA lining it likely has BPS — also shown to have adverse health effects. BPS is also bisphenol with the same endocrine disrupting effects as BPA. References are linked.
5 — Post-Consumption — do we know if aluminum 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 aluminum 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? Can we just swap one problem to excuse the creation of another? Do we need to increase the overall carbon footprint?
So — are we not to have any solution to this gargantuan waste problem? We are not arguing for an absolute solution that is 100% harmless during production and/or downstream at the waste end.
No solution can be absolute. However, a viable approach will require a systemic change as opposed to a bandaid “solution.” Instead of investing resources into researching alternative “single use” products that can ONLY address the waste problem, we need to be asking a different question. How do we avoid “single-use” whenever possible — with the purpose of minimizing environmental impact?
Are there any true alternatives?
Many viable, and equally convenient reusable systems are possible, as are even some “single-use” approaches that have been working for decades.
One option that has been gaining traction is that of closed loop reusable systems used by several venues such as Globelet or rCup. In New York City there is also CupZero for festivals and events. Similar initiatives are currently being developed around the country and world.
Globelet has helped to transform all venues and events in New Zealand — their process is one of convenience and Wikis are absolutely in love with it.
rCup has been working with different venues, sporting events, and music bands across the US to reduce their waste stream. Their systems and solutions are providing much needed change to eliminate the amount of waste created during large events. Patrons pickup a cup with their first drink, reuse it during the entire event, then have the option to return to the bar, leave it behind at their seats, or take it home as a souvenir.
While this “cup share” approach still has room for improvement on the products offered and logistics side — it’s a promising work-in-progress that has, and can handle, events with over hundreds of thousands of people.
If these options seem unlikely or unfavorable for some reason — just take one look at India. They have been using clay products made of soil during very large events. Sure, one might argue that they are still “single-use” — however, locals collect the cups at the end of an event, break them, and re-mold them into new cups for the next event. Truly closed loop, truly recycled, truly infinite, emitting minimal carbon — just the transportation from the local production location to event venue. This process comes with the extra benefit to local workers and economy! Nothing is destroyed to make these cups. Rather than waste, jobs are created.
We should go ahead, recognize and celebrate our wins — every step we take to change our waste addiction is an absolute win! But we need to engage in better research before settling for a solution. We need to ask the right questions and look at the biggest picture and long-term results. Replacing one disposable item with another is not the answer. It just moves the problem from the production and waste impacts of plastic to those of another material. Bioplastics and compostables are not the answer because most of them are not compostable and/or bio-degradable in the majority of places or environments. Building facilities to compost or biodegrade these items can be much more expensive, energy intensive, and inconvenient than just avoiding single-use disposable items in the first place.
The better approach is to reconsider the bigger picture and cause a systemic change — what if we could avoid disposables all together at these large venues and smaller food service locations? What if we changed our disposable culture — the culture that “normalizes” 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 cafe, sip our coffee from a ceramic mug, 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 pains 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 behavior on this planet now.