AskPablo: Should I buy soda in plastic bottles or aluminum cans?

Dear Pablo, Assuming that one can’t break the habit of drinking pop, what kind of container is more environmentally friendly, aluminum cans or plastic bottles (2 liter)?
Aluminum cans take a great deal of energy and natural resources to process and transport. Aluminum begins as bauxite ore, is refined into aluminum oxide, and ends up as blocks of aluminum, a supply chain that can take it halfway around the planet. Next the blocks are heated and turned into large rolls of aluminum before being transported yet again. The sheets are stamped and manufactured into cans, which are then filled and distributed to stores. After weeks or months of travel and processing, the aluminum can is used for maybe a few minutes and discarded.
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11 responses

  1. Great post and good points. You always do a good job of explaining the simple answer on many of these ‘is this better than that’ questions — that as with everything in life cycle analysis, it’s all about the assumptions. Aluminum smelting plants are mostly located near sources of cheap, abundant electricity (because the process is so energy intensive). The answer to the original question changes if the aluminum is made say, in the pacific northwest or other area with a lot of hydropower (or in a territory with a lot of nuclear generation), or in a territory with mostly coal. The same thing can be said of the location of the bauxite refining operations. Recycled aluminum has very low (~5% of virgin) embodied energy, so again the recycling rate matters. So, as you said, the easy answer to cans vs. bottles is: neither.

  2. Everything should be packaged in REUSABLE glass containers.
    Fruits and veggies: pint and quart jars w/ paper labels.
    Soda, water, milk and other drinks: 2-3 different sizes of interchangable bottles.
    Liquid detergents, soaps and shampoos in white glass containers(to keep them separate from clear food containers.)
    The same trucks that deliver the products can take the empties back to the bottling plants.
    Anytime a new container has to be made it is a waste. Reuse is the best way for the future.

  3. What about the outcome of recycling a plastic bottle versus an aluminum can? An aluminum can can be recycled and 100% of the materials are preserved to make a new can. After recycling a plastic bottle it cannot be used to make a new one. The plastic goes into other products and virgin materials are used to construct a new bottle. The aluminum can may take more energy to make, but once it is recycled it is back on the shelves within 60 days as a brand new can. Try to do that with plastic.

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