More and more these days the craft beer industry touts the environmental advantages of packaging its beverages in aluminum cans. And for good reason: aluminum, or aluminium as much of the world prefers, is lighter than glass and therefore requires less energy use for distribution, and the valuable element is among the most highly recycled materials in the world. Internationally, the aluminum can recycling rate is nearly 70 percent. Notoriously poor American recyclers, on the other hand, aren’t even achieving a 50 percent rate. According to the Container Recycling Institute, in the U.S. alone more than a trillion beer and soda cans have been trashed rather than recycled since their mainstream use began some five decades ago.
That’s a shame, because the carbon footprint for producing an aluminum can made from recycled aluminium is dramatically lower than that of a can sourced purely from mined bauxite, a process that’s energy intensive and results in significant land degradation. It’s especially regrettable when you consider that beer and other beverage cans are infinitely recyclable, meaning that unlike plastic for example, they can be recycled into new cans over and over without compromising the quality of the aluminium. What’s more, the process of producing new cans from recycled ones typically takes just 60 days.
Given how far below the 100 percent recovery rate the world is, consumers and industry (can producers, breweries, retailers, drinkers/recyclers) could certainly be doing better. Follow the steps below to increase the odds that your infinitely recyclable aluminum beer cans actually get recycled.
In closing, it’s important not to miss the point that the difference between something being “recyclable” and whether it actually gets recycled is a profound one. If packaging craft beer in aluminium cans is to be marketed as better for the environment, industry and consumers will need to work a little harder to make sure it happens.
Everyone who inhabits our planet – brewers, retailers, and drinkers alike – lives in a world with limited natural resources. There’s no middle ground here. “Sort of” sustainable or “more sustainable than another material” isn’t actually meaningful. Nor is “aspiring” to achieve a better recycling rate. A worldwide recovery rate of 90 percent or better for an infinitely recyclable material such as aluminum is sustainable. Anything less is just marketing.
Note (1): If you live in one of the 10 states with a bottle deposit law (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont) and plan to redeem your can, leave the label on.
Note (2): All of the above tips apply to glass bottles as well, which are also infinitely recyclable. Unfortunately, the likelihood of glass actually being “recycled” back into glass largely depends on whether glass recycling facilities exist in the part of the world you live in. In many regions, they do not.