When you’re shopping for beverages, what kind of container do you choose? You have a few options: plastic bottles, glass bottles, or aluminum cans. What to choose? The decision can be daunting for environmentalists. We’re here to give you the lowdown on which of these receptacles gets the planet’s stamp of approval.
Step 1: How They’re Made
We see beverage containers constantly — lining the shelves of the grocery store, filling coolers at BBQs, quenching a beachgoer’s thirst. Just how did they get there?
Plastic manufacturing starts off with oil and natural gas. These raw materials are converted into smaller pieces, called monomers, and are then chemically bonded together to create long chains, known as polymers. These polymers are the plastic you see in the form of water bottles, food packaging, and much more.
To get to the crude oil and natural gas needed to produce plastics, we must head for the Earth’s crust. However, oil and natural gas are buried beneath layers of bedrock — that’s where drilling comes in. Drilling for oil in our pristine oceans and fracking for natural gas in America’s West is destroying our environment — and endangering our health.
Liquefied sand, soda ash (naturally occurring sodium carbonate), limestone, recycled glass, and various additives make up the glass bottles that hold our beverages.
Limestone helps prevent glass from weathering and it’s a valuable raw material for glass containers. The sedimentary rock is typically mined from a quarry — either above or below ground. In terms of the environment, limestone mining may contaminate water and contribute to noise pollution. Limestone mining can also destroy habitat for animals who live in limestone caves, and can form a permanent scar on the landscape.
It’s safe to say that the raw materials that go into making glass bottles are widely available in the U.S.
New aluminum cans are almost always made from bauxite, a mineral that the U.S. gets from mines in countries like Guinea and Australia. The mining of bauxite is harsh on the planet. Miners extract raw bauxite by way of open pits — essentially, scraping a pit into the landscape and leaving environmental destruction behind. Bauxite mining contributes to habitat loss and water contamination, as well as a slew of other negative environmental impacts, like increased erosion.
Step 2: Transport
When getting from here to there, each container has a different footprint.
The environmental cost of transporting plastic bottles can exceed even those of creating the plastic bottle in the first place. This isn’t always the case — it depends on the distance of transport — but it’s a vexing idea.
For short distances, plastic bottles have a low transportation footprint. They pack tightly — companies are definitely responding to greener consumers and are keeping sustainability in mind when designing the shapes of their bottles. They’re also very lightweight, so shipping them consumes less fuel.
There’s one big, undeniable, eco-unfriendly aspect of glass bottles — they’re heavy. The transportation of glass bottles requires significantly more energy than their lightweight counterparts. Glass is fragile, too, so shippers can’t pack glass containers into a truck as tightly as aluminum and plastic containers.
Americans love cans because they are small, lightweight, and airtight. Turns out, the planet does, too. Their size means they save fuel — more cans can fit into a smaller space and their light weight means less gas to get them from point A to point B. Because aluminum isn’t particularly fragile, cans require less cardboard packaging for transport, meaning more room for more cans.
Step 3: Where They End Up
Empty — now what? Each of these containers is recyclable. Here’s how they compare.
The recycling rate of plastics is actually quite low — in 2017, only 8.4% of plastic material generated in the U.S. was recycled. The rest was combusted for energy or sent to a landfill where its fate is uncertain — it can either find its way out and pollute our planet or sit in the landfill for up to 500 years before finally decomposing.
Glass bottles are 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of quality. That’s not something you can say about plastic. An estimated 80% of recovered glass containers collected only a five years ago was made into new glass bottles. Since China introduced its ban on contaminated recyclables, curbside glass recycling in the U.S. has collapsed, although cities still accept glass at transfer stations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that 31.8% of glass made in 2018 was recycled.
Once you toss your glass bottle in the recycling bin, manufacturers can have it back on the shelves in 30 days. Plus, using recycled glass when making new glass bottles reduces the manufacturer’s carbon footprint — furnaces may run at lower temperatures when recycled glass is used because it is already melted down to the right consistency.
Like glass, aluminum cans are completely recyclable and are commonly recycled worldwide as part of municipal recycling programs. And like glass, aluminum cans can be recycled repeatedly with no limit.
In her book, The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard notes that we are currently recycling only 45% of our cans. That means a lot of pit mining for bauxite to make new material. According to Leonard, humans have trashed more than a trillion aluminum cans in landfills since 1972, when such records began.
And the Winner Is…
If you can find aluminum cans made from 100% recycled materials, they should be your top choice when shopping for single-serving beverages. Their low transportation footprint and ease of recyclability make them a winner.
However, the extraction of raw bauxite is detrimental to the planet. New aluminum cans are not eco-friendly.
Glass should be your pick if recycled cans are not an option. Glass bottles are made from relatively innocuous raw materials and are, like aluminum cans, completely recyclable. Their weight and transportation footprint is their downfall.
Plastic does have a small carbon footprint when it comes to transportation, but it’s tough to ignore the giant carbon footprint when it comes to manufacturing. Plus, the plastic that doesn’t end up in a recycling bin can be a huge pollutant in our environment, killing wildlife and contaminating ecosystems. Our irresponsible use of plastic is ravaging the planet.
Feature images courtesy of Shutterstock
Editor’s note: Originally published on August 11, 2017, this article was updated in October 2020.