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Historical Background Document - 2001

Aluminum Can Waste
Bigger Impact Than Plastic Bottle Waste

From an environmental point of view, aluminum containers have a bigger impact than plastic. Although plastic is gaining ground in the soft drink world, most containers, by far, are still aluminum. In 1999 (the most recent year for which there are data), 73% of soft drinks sold in containers were sold in aluminum 12 oz. cans; 27% were sold in plastic of various sizes; and less than 1% in glass. That's 65 billion aluminum soft drink cans and 24 million plastic soft drink bottles. Plastic is also poised to break into the beer world, but current use is negligible.

Aluminum - and aluminum cans - have been called 'frozen energy' because they take so much energy to produce. In fact, the energy embodied in a soda can is equivalent to the energy contained in a 12 ounce can one third full of gasoline.

Waste is often calculated by weight, and the beverage industry likes to call attention to statistics that wasted beverage containers are a relatively small part of the 'waste stream.' But weight is not what is causing global climate change, but emissions from energy use is a major cause. A recent article by Usman Valiente stated: "While aluminum cans only comprise 1.4 per cent of the entire waste stream by weight (and 1.9 per cent of the divertible waste stream by weight) they contribute a whopping 14 per cent of the emissions embodied in a ton of divertible waste sent to landfill."

For an enviro-friendly image, aluminum has been relying on successful PR campaigns and the fact that individual aluminum cans have more value (about a penny and a half) than glass and plastic (negligible). The public is not generally aware that:

  • The aluminum can recycling rate has declined steadily to 55% in 1999, from a peak in 1992 of 67%. In other words, 45% -- or 45 billion cans (102 billion beer and soda cans were sold in the U.S.) - were landfilled or otherwise destroyed in 1999. Source: Container Recycling Institute
  • The aluminum industry has been 'cooking the books' by including imported cans in recycling rates they have calculated. The Container Recycling Institute challenged this practice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed in 1998.
  • The Aluminum Association has a national recycling rate goal of 75%.
  • Recycling aluminum cans does save a great amount of energy, but the amount is closer to 75% then the 95% widely quoted.

Energy impacts of wasted beverage containers are immense. Other impacts include impacts from air and water emissions and the environmental costs associated with all environmental impacts. A Tellus Institute study from the 1980s estimated the 'environmental cost impact' of using a ton of virgin aluminum as $1,933, and the 'environmental cost impact' of using a ton of recycled aluminum as $313. The difference, $1,620, is the difference between virgin and secondary materials use."




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