Is Craft Beer’s Move to Aluminum a Dirty Choice?


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A Bauxite mine in Australia.

By John Heylin

Craft beer is considered by many to be one of the leading green industries in America right now.  High costs have inspired brewers to treat their own waste water, ship across the country by rail, and reclaim heat from boiling tanks for use elsewhere in the brewing process.  Support from craft beer drinkers has also given them the freedom to grow their own hops and move to more expensive organic ingredients.

Sadly this seems to be taking a turn.  A lot of craft beer is now being switched from glass bottles to aluminum cans.  The reason being that people want to take beer hiking, backpacking, to the beach, and ball games.  Glass is simply too heavy.  Aluminum also has benefits such as being lighter for reduced shipping costs, the recycling process is less energy-intensive, and canning lines for these small breweries are a small fraction of the size of an unreliable and always breaking bottling line.  Yet despite all this, the move to aluminum is the wrong one.

Aluminum is an amazing metal.  It’s strong enough to be put into cars, bicycles and airplanes.  It’s light enough to make a drastic improvement in shipping costs for beer and soda.  It’s also energy-cheap to recycle it due to its pliability.  But for all the good aluminum does, it has to come from somewhere, right?  It needs to be mined, and the mining process and the refining of aluminum is quite possibly one of the least green things on this planet.

To mine aluminum you first must strip-mine the land in order to get the deposits of bauxite which contain aluminum.  One must dig up the entire topsoil translating to vast acreage of forestland other terrain being removed entirely.  It’s almost beautiful how clean and red the mined areas look, the efficiency of the process itself is impressive in its destruction.  The removal of the topsoil takes away the ability for the land to absorb water, resulting in landslides, iron and nutrient-rich soil suffocating streams, and the resulting bacterial blooms created by this slurry.  There’s a reason aluminum mining is scarce in the United States, this is why:

In order to remove the aluminum from the bauxite heavy chemicals are needed to dissolve the ore materials from the soil.  Sodium Hydroxide, a nasty chemical, is paired with extreme heat to accomplish this task.  Five tons of bauxite is needed to produce one ton of unrefined aluminum (alumina).  When you consider just how many tons of aluminum are used in the United States alone each year with only a 50% recycle rate, that adds up to a lot of moved earth.  And don’t think that the remains from the process are harmless, just ask Hungary which had to evacuate entire towns due to the remaining toxic sludge breaking through its dam.  These places are unable to sustain plant life and won’t in the near future.

Let’s not forget the gases released during the refining process, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, carbon monoxide and the incredibly dangerous hydrogen fluoride.  Hydrogen fluoride actually replaces calcium in bones leading people exposed to it to have what’s called “brittle bones” and when exposed to moisture is prone to explosion.  Even the loading process onto ships at the ports of countries like Jamaica and Australia are killing the reefs, saturating them in heavy metals.

That’s it right?  Wrong.  Aluminum mining is very energy intensive.  The Akosombo Dam in Ghana was built with funding from the Volta Aluminum Company, flooding an area large enough to give it the title of “worlds largest man-made lake by surface area,” displacing 80,000 people, and all to power their smelters.  Only 20% of the power generated by this dam goes to the people of Ghana who frequently have power shortages, the rest going to the Volta Aluminum Company.  A recent study also discovered that the added weight of the new Lake Volta has caused readjustments in the earths crust leading to geological destabilization in the region.

The point is that only after it’s ripped from the earth, chemically treated, refined, shipped, smelted and processed is it a green product.  If we recycled every scrap of aluminum it might make it worth it, but the cost to the earth and to these countries is a cost we’re willing to pay for but they cannot afford.  Like the myth of clean coal, clean aluminum is still a lie and craft brewers need to stay away from it.

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