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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12 responses

  1. So, are you saying bottling beer is better? In a post here on May 11, these stats were given on aluminum vs. glass:

    “The recycling rate for glass in the US is only 28% compared to the nearly 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans. Moreover, beer bottles contain only 20-30% recycled glass in comparison to the average beer can that is made of 40% recycled aluminum. Recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and produces 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing new aluminum.”

    I guess it’s 6 of one and half-dozen of the other.

    My personal choice is craft beer in cans (mini kegs, if you will).

    1. Honestly? The greenest solution is reusable bottles. Getting rid of that system took the responsibility from the large beer producers and put it onto the consumer, hence the low recycling rates. At least getting sand to make glass is a fraction of the damage aluminum mining and smelting does to the environment.

  2. I totally reject the ‘reasoning’ warning against a move to Al cans by craft brewing as: a) flawed (by omission primarily) and b) for the most part a straw man argument w/inaccurate conclusions. However, there are some salient points/concerns about off-shore mining & processing that could/should be addressed/rectified.

    The primary reason I regard the Presido’s denunciation of craft brewing’s (slow/uneven)adoption of cans as inconsequential (or worse, intentionally misleading) is ‘volume’. With craft’s total US beer market share at ~ 5%, and less than 10% of craft breweries adopting cans (for even a portion of their production), putting the full ‘weight’ of the bad actors & practices in (mostly) unregulated off-shore aluminum production & processing operations on craft brewing for it’s infinitesimally minute, fractional consumption of Al (compared to total worldwide industrial Al consumption, or, AB InBev/SAB Miller) is nonsensical.

    So, what’s your real ‘problem’ w/craft brewing, Presido Marketing? It cannot be ‘aluminum’.

    1. This post comes from a Presidio student and represents his views- not those of the school or its student body.

      In fact, a set of recent graduates is currently working on a start-up that will help make aluminium bottling affordable for craft brewers, (See: The Can Van).

      I will let them correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the impetus for this project was the higher rates of recycling for aluminium coupled with the lowered transport weight, which reduces carbon emissions.

      Clearly this isn’t a cut and dried issue.

    2. Again, these are my personal views, not the school.

      I am not blaming the craft beer industry for all the wrongs of aluminum mining, what I am trying to do with this article is draw attention to the hazards of using aluminum in great quantities.

  3. The issue of trade-offs has not been fully explored. Aluminum smelting, as well as the steel and phosphate fertilizer industries produce fluoride as a waste byproduct. It sold to water systems nationwide. Since less than 1 percent of the water pumped through a city’s domestic water system is consumed or used by people the vast majority of added fluoride is dumped into the sewer stream. Fluoride remains intact after moving through sewer plants. The treated effluent is then dumped into lakes and rivers. These fluoride outfalls cause salmon to become lethagic and lose their way. Other aquatic organisms are also at risk from this protoplasmic poison. See:

    In this way, aluminum smelting contributes to the toxic load of all river systems in the US.

    We are swimming in fluoride, thanks to a practice that allows industry to avoid the cost of treating hazardous material. The entire sorry episode is revealed in The Fluoride Deception, a book by Christopher Bryson.

    People who are aware of these details will not forsake glass when brewing beer.

    Learn more:

  4. As some of the previous comments point out, the author of this piece does not have his facts straight.
    First, the recycle content of aluminum cans in the United States is ~68% (this is average…so some are less and some are 100%) versus glass at less than 30%. So the mining and bauxite arguement is moot! I will go on to point out that glass bottles have a much higher carbon footprint due to the energy needed to produce and the energy needed to get the heavy containers to the final consumer.
    So if you want the freshest and lowest impact beer….mini kegs it is!

  5. Thanks for The Can Van shoutout, Jen! As John points out, this is a hot topic. Looking at the lifecycle analysis of bottles vs. cans, the conclusion is highly dependent on the lens you are looking through. Things only get more complicated the more you discover.

    The bottom line is that for a more sustainable beer, you want to buy local. Cans provide a way for local breweries to offer their beer to the outdoor enthusiast market, and compete with “the big guys”. Cans also have benefits due to their lightweight and more efficient shipping, and, as mentioned earlier, their higher recycling rates.

  6. I find the whole premise that the craft brewing industry is green is rather naive. The few craft breweries that have gotten large enough to copy the Bud/Miller/Coors of the world can now benefit from energy recovery that the big boys have been doing for decades. The vast majority of craft breweries are not energy efficient.

    Small craft breweries usually don’t treat their waste water at all, because they are a relatively small blip in the total waste water produced by larger players that they remain under the radar. Those that do have to treat their waste of been noticed and forced to comply, but will avoid it if at all possible.

    Sure there is some marketing of organic but it is a tiny part of craft brewing.

    Shipping by rail?, again only the biggest craft brewers that are again copying good business practice like Bud/Miller/Coors.

    Any serious comparison of craft brewing versus megabrewers will conclude that per barrel produced the big guys do everything greener than the little guys.

  7. “There’s a reason aluminum mining is scarce in the United States, this is why”

    I believe the reason that bauxite mining in the US is scarce is because there is almost no bauxite here.  Mining is done in countries that actually have bauxite in abundance, not because of an example of an irresponsibly mined site. 

    Do your research:

    Bloggers really should not write about these things (both for and against cans), because you fill the internet with misinformation and opinions disguised as researched facts.  The age we live in, information spreads quickly, but the unfortunate result is that ignorance does as well.  Stick to writing opinions on beer.   

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