As consumers become increasingly conscious about the environmental impact of their purchases, companies are scrambling to find ways to showcase their commitment to sustainability. One popular trend in the beverage industry has been the emergence of water packaged in aluminum. While this may seem like a good idea on the surface, the truth is that canned water may not help your ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals as much as you think. In fact, consumers will be surprised to learn that aluminum may create as many negative eco impacts as its plastic packaging counterpart.
Aluminum Production; A Dirty Business
The reason aluminum is so often pushed as a sustainable material is because of its back-end recyclability potential. We will get to the actual (not-so-great) rates, but recycling is just one of the factors that should be considered when truly understanding a material’s real lifecycle impact to the planet. Front-end sourcing, extraction, production and transportation are also essential metrics that cannot be ignored.
The source material of aluminum is bauxite, which is a metal that is strip-mined from rock sediment in subtropical regions (primarily Australia, Africa, India and South America). In Porto Trombetas, Brazil, a rainforest area the size of 250 football fields is cleared every year for bauxite mining.
The process requires a great deal of energy, which creates vegetation loss, forest fragmentation, air pollution, biodiversity damage and negative impacts on water resources. According to the Indian Bureau of Mines, extracted bauxite ore is also known to be chemically active. Rain water draining through ore piles turns acidic and dissolves metals, which can affect both groundwater and surface water bodies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, aluminum production is a leading cause of perfluorocarbon (PFC) emissions in the U.S, a potent greenhouse gas.
Dropping Aluminum Recycling Rates
Currently, aluminum consumption rates are quickly increasing, while the recycling rates are decreasing, which means a growing percentage of aluminum cans in the market will be composed of “virgin” aluminum – i.e. strip mined-sourced aluminum. According to the Containers Recycling Institute, recycling rates for aluminum cans are at 45%, down from 54.5% in 2020. This means that more cans are ending up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose. According to the World Economic Forum, 7 million tons of aluminum are still not recycled each year and over 30 percent of cans are made with virgin aluminum.
Life Cycle Analysis Reveals Aluminum Deficiencies
Through an ISO-certified Life Cycle Assessment, researchers found that plastic is the most planet-taxing material, but aluminum was not far behind. Compared to Boxed Water™, aluminum caused more ozone depletion, global warming (greenhouse gasses), smog, acidification and fossil fuel depletion. In fact, aluminum has 2x the carbon footprint of a carton. You can see the full study HERE.
Carton recycling rates have continued to grow in recent years, unlike recycling rates for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Boxed Water™ cartons are 100% recyclable and 92% plant based, including the cap, which is sourced from sustainably harvested pines and tree pulp waste. Tree crops benefit the environment, while providing renewable packaging materials that, even if not recycled, more easily break down into the earth.
Consider The Source
As consumers pay more attention to how and where their food/beverage is sourced (e.g. farm-raised, organic, line-caught, etc.), we can pay the same consideration to how the packaging is sourced.
While we shouldn’t be expected to have scientific lifecycle statistics readily memorized as part of our purchasing decisions, an easy way to evaluate what’s best for the environment is to envision the source of the material.
Plastic is from petroleum. Aluminum requires strip mining our forests. Boxed Water™ cartons are from sustainable plants. It’s a no-brainer.