CU Boulder makes the plastic-to-aluminum switch at its football games
A step in the right direction for curbing plastic waste
With much fanfare, the University of Colorado-Boulder announced earlier this fall it would serve beer in aluminum cups at its home football games this season. The cups, which are part of CU’s sustainability program aimed at eliminating all plastic cups by 2020, are specially produced in partnership with the aluminum can giant Ball.
Switching from plastic to aluminum is definitely a step in the right direction. Aluminum is one of the Earth’ most plentiful natural resources, and unlike plastic, it’s “infinitely recyclable,” according to John A. Hayes, Ball’s Chairman. In fact, Ball’s website offers a glowing commitment to sustainability and the environment.
Ball is not alone. Generally speaking, the aluminum industry has shown through goals and metrics that it’s all in on making its products sustainable. While Ball didn’t respond to a request for information about the specific percentage of recycled versus virgin aluminum used in making its own cups, a spokesman was clear that using more environmentally-friendly recycled aluminum is an industry-wide endeavor. Ball’s Director of Sustainability Bjoern Kullman pointed out that that 73 percent of the aluminum used to make cups and cans comes from recycled material. (Ball is one of five corporations whose data was used to compile that statistic.)
This fact is essential if we want to laud CU for its switch from plastic to aluminum. The reason: Local ecosystems are damaged when virgin aluminum is mined. The metal’s smelting process requires enormous amounts of electricity and water, along with the environmental cost of producing and delivering them. Smelting also releases harmful perfluorocarbons into the air, which is a pollutant worse for global warming than carbon dioxide.
But there’s a problem. The supply of recycled aluminum coming from consumers isn’t nearly as much as it could be. Consumers could recycle many more cans than they do, and the industry would have more recycled aluminum to use in production. Consider this: Some 45.2 billion cans — more than $800 million worth of aluminum — were thrown away in 2018 that could otherwise have been responsibly recycled and made into new cans.
This means that the best way for the CU-Ball deal to truly score on the environmental front is for better teamwork from consumers. It’s up to us to make sure those cups find their way into the municipal recycling waste stream. We bought the drinks, we own the cup, and now we guide the waste to the appropriate next stage. Even better, of course, is for the University to find a way for the cups to be reused — a big challenge to be sure, but a goal that needs to be pursued.
So thank you University of Colorado-Boulder and Ball. In this case, the hype is well-deserved. But let’s also toast the fans who make sure the cups get recycled, completing what the industry calls the “virtuous cycle.”