By Eric Onstad
While plastic, which is polluting the seas, may take 1,000 years to decompose, the production of aluminium creates far more carbon dioxide, so cans are problematic, too, says Eric Onstad
GLOBAL bottled water giants are ramping up trials of easily recyclable aluminium cans to replace plastic, which pollutes the world’s seas. But though aluminium cans might indeed mean less ocean waste, they come with their own eco-price: The production of each can pumps about twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as each plastic bottle.
French group Danone has started to replace some plastic bottles with aluminium cans for local water brands in Britain, Poland, and Denmark. The shift comes as multinational rivals such as Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo, and Nestle are also launching canned versions of water brands.
The beverage industry has been scrambling to react to public anger over huge piles of plastic waste contaminating oceans, and is pledging to step up recycling. However, by increasing recycling, via cans, companies could fall back in efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, which illustrates the tough juggling act they have to keep environmentally conscious investors, campaigners, and consumers on-side.
“That’s the dilemma you’re going to have to choose between,” said Ruben Griffioen, sustainability manager of packaging materials at Heineken, who added that the company was trying to reduce both plastic waste and emissions.
Recycling of plastic is more complex, as it causes degradation and has lower reuse rates than aluminium. So the metal has been heralded as a greener alternative. Cans have, on average, 68% recycled content, compared to just 3% for plastic, in the US, Environmental Protection Agency data shows.
“The aluminium industry can play on the fact that its product is infinitely recyclable, and they’re right,” said Martin Barrow, director of footprinting at UK-based non-profit consultancy, the Carbon Trust.
Comparing the carbon footprints of aluminium and plastics is complex, because making the metal with hydro power, instead of fossil fuels, reduces emissions, while using recycled aluminium slashes it even further. But when all types of metal are averaged out, cans still account for about double the greenhouse gases of plastic bottles, Barrow said, citing figures for Europe.
At aluminium’s most polluting level, a 330ml can is responsible for 1.3kg of carbon dioxide emissions, according to analysis compiled for Reuters, roughly equating to the emissions produced by driving a car seven to 8km.
A plastic bottle of the same size, made from the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which is typically used, accounts for up to 330g. Bruce Karas, an executive at Coca- Cola North America, in change of environment and sustainability, acknowledged the conflicting environmental pressures at play.
“When we look at a different material, you look at all of the levers: the carbon footprint, consumer preference, energy, water,” he said. “There’s a mix; What will water bottles be made of in future? there are some things that are not that desirable, but if you have five good things and one that isn’t, we’ll all have to make decisions. It’ll never be that clean.”
So aluminium has a larger footprint in production, because of the vast power needed in smelting. But, in a further example of the complexities of environmental impact, the overall carbon equation becomes more muddied when other issues, such as logistics, are taken into account.
“It’s a complex picture, certainly,” said Simon Lowden, an executive who leads Pepsi’s plastics drive. “You have to think about transport, secondary packaging, time in store; all those considerations come into play.”
Because aluminium is lightweight and cans make efficient use of space, less transport is usually needed than for plastics or glass, while less power is also needed to chill drinks in cans (particularly useful in tropical climes).
“That means, in some markets aluminium would actually not produce as much greenhouse gas,” Lowden said. But while cans could carve out a niche within the billion euro-a-year bottled water industry, they are unlikely to sweep the board anytime soon, if ever, industry experts say.
Simple economics is a major factor: Aluminium is more expensive than plastic. The raw material cost for a can is about 25%-30% higher than a PET bottle of a similar volume.
A broad shift to aluminium cans would raise costs for drinks companies — also including new manufacturing infrastructure — some of which are likely to be passed on to consumers, thus hitting products’ competitiveness against plastic rivals. Another key factor is consumer convenience. How often do people down bottles of water in one go?
While advances are being made in can technology, most cans are opened and stay open, while bottles can be recapped. Plastic water bottles can also be sold in a range of sizes, while cans are more limited. As a result of such factors, drinks giants are cautious.
“It’s not necessarily saying we’re pulling the plug on plastic; it’s really looking at how consumers react to canned water,” said Coca-Cola’s Karas. In an example of this toe-in-the-water approach, Coke is planning a limited launch of its top US water brand, Dasani, in aluminum cans and aluminum resealable bottles, later this year.
Even while companies are beginning to sell water in cans, to assuage pollution concerns, they are also embarking on a green makeover for plastic. Scientific efforts include creating new compounds that are biodegradable or more easily recyclable.
Danone said it was replacing some plastic with aluminum cans for its Flyte brand in Britain, Sparkles in Poland, and Aqua d’or in Denmark. But the company, which uses 400,000 tonnes of PET plastic bottles each year, is also focusing on increasing recycling of plastic and plans to use an average of 50% recycled material in its water bottles by 2025 and 100% for its Evian brand.
And while Pepsi is testing aluminum for its Aquafina water at food service outlets, it is also introducing a plastic bottle made of 100% recycled material for another brand, Lifewtr. The world’s top can-maker, Ball Corp, which supplies the likes of Coke and Pepsi, is already scrambling to add capacity to meet demand.
“This is a level of growth that we haven’t seen in a long time. We’re looking at a number of speed-up projects, new can lines,” said Kathleen Pitre, chief commercial and sustainability officer for Ball’s global beverage-packaging business.
Ball told investors it planned to add four to five billion additional cans of capacity by mid-2021 to its existing 105bn, but this does not even include potential expansion in the water sector. A shift of only 1% of global soft drinks, beer, and bottled water, from plastic and glass to cans, would mean a surge of 24bn more cans, said the company.
That 1% change would increase aluminum demand by around 310,000 tonnes, according to Uday Patel, at Wood Mackenzie, and further shifts could counter wider market weakness.
“You’re talking about billions and billions of water bottles, so there’s a potential revival for the aluminum can market,” said Patel. “But it’ll take three or four years to see if this is a real trend.”