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Plastic, Aluminum or Glass: What’s the Most Environmentally Friendly Drink Vessel?

Just because each can be recycled doesn’t mean they actually will be

My reusable water bottle prevents me from needing to purchase single-use plastic water bottles, but that really only covers one beverage. I, sadly, do not have a tap for beer in my home, nor do I have much interest in purchasing a Soda Stream to deal with seltzer or other carbonated beverages I may enjoy on occasion. Nevertheless, I want to make my purchases of said alternative beverages as eco-friendly as possible. If I must purchase beverages in individual servings, what’s the best vessel to choose? 

Plastic, glass and aluminum can hypothetically all be recycled, and you probably just throw them all in your recycling bin and call it a day. Thing is, not all of it actually will be recycled. In fact, much of it will probably just end up in a landfill. The material most likely to meet this fate is plastic. In previous years, much of our recyclable plastic was shipped to China, where it would be processed for re-use. As of January 2018, though, China no longer accepts our waste, which is understandable, because they have enough of their own. 

But because we were formerly able to ship our plastics overseas, there are few regions of the U.S. with adequate plastic recycling infrastructure. To create the necessary infrastructure or otherwise pay for another country to take our plastic is extremely costly, and most cities and towns simply don’t have the available cash to manage it. So, recyclable plastic just becomes trash

Glass presents a similar, though less significant, problem. While glass isn’t currently a valuable commodity in the U.S. (it actually costs around $20 per ton to recycle, as of 2019), its rates of production and effects on the environment are far smaller than that of plastic. Still, only about a third of our glass is currently recycled

The case for aluminum, however, is far more optimistic. Much of the aluminum in the U.S. can be processed within the country, making it both cost and environmentally effective to do so here. In fact, aluminum recycling actually generates money: Whereas glass costs $20 per ton to recycle, aluminum is valued at $1,317 per ton. According to a 2019 report from Aluminum.org, consumers recycle around 50 percent of their aluminum, and the average aluminum can is comprised of about 73 percent recycled material.

Given that cans are also much lighter than glass, transporting them is less of an ecological burden, too. You’re not going to burn in hell if you occasionally choose bottled beers instead of cans, but it’s not a bad idea to make cans your go-to. Either way, the odds of it getting recycled are much higher than with plastic

The Earth thanks you for your sacrifice.

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