Ask Eartha: What is the difference between aluminum and plastic?
Recently I noticed that some grocery stores offer aluminum water bottles in addition to plastic water bottles. Both are recyclable, does it really matter which one I buy?
Despite many of us owning (and occasionally forgetting to bring) reusable bottles, consumption of bottled water is on the rise. In 2020, Americans consumed 15 billion gallons — roughly 22,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth — of bottled water. We are hydrated, but we are not recycling. The average American uses 167 bottles per year but recycles just 38 of those bottles.
Some people choose bottled water just because it’s a healthier alternative to sugary sodas, and many argue that they trust the quality of bottled water more than the tap. In Summit County, we are lucky to have access to clean and healthy drinking water. Refills of that fresh mountain water are always preferred. But if you need to pick up a bottle of water, opt for aluminum when you have the choice. Let’s dig in.
The journey of a plastic and aluminum bottle
What is plastic, anyways? Crude oil or natural gas is pulled from the earth, after which it is refined and processed into all manner of plastics, including water bottles. If an empty plastic bottle is lucky enough to make it into the recycling bin, often these plastic bottles are melted down and spun into fabrics, usually turning into synthetic clothing, carpets and other polyester-based items. The quality of the plastic is lost over time and eventually becomes trash. This process is called downcycling, instead of recycling.
Aluminum is also pulled from the earth and manufactured into all types of products. We’re a lot better at recycling aluminum (50% of aluminum products compared to roughly 30% of plastics), and the bottles and cans that do end up in the proper bin get recycled over and over and over again — infinitely! Even better? Large aluminum producers are making big commitments to use more recycled aluminum in their products. This sets a standard for companies across the globe and reduces future mining.
Impacts on people and planet
When plastic bottles sit in your hot car or rest on the grocery store shelf for extended periods of time, chemicals that were used to create the plastics seep into the water. One chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA, is added in the manufacturing process to make the material more flexible. It can be released when the bottle is heated up, or even just left in the sun during a picnic. This chemical alone is linked to many health problems. As for aluminum bottles, the contents have been shown to remain clean. Many myths about the supposed health hazards of aluminum have now been debunked by researchers. It is very safe to drink from aluminum and continue refilling the bottle many times after, while plastic will slowly leach BPA and other chemicals into the drinking water if you continue to refill it.
So, if plastic water bottles aren’t getting recycled, what happens to them? Some make it to the landfill, but often they end up scattered on roadsides or polluting waterways. A single plastic water bottle takes 450 years to decompose. But when they get trapped in the willows along local streams or forgotten at trailheads and bake in the sun, the chemicals used to create the bottle begin to seep into the ground. Slowly, the bottle breaks down into smaller plastics which are then found in the waterways from which we drink or in the food that we eat, as well as eventually our bodies.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to speak up in support of clean and healthy drinking water. You can even ask your school or office for a water filtration system or a hydration station that encourages reusable bottles. If you do not see aluminum as an option at local grocery stores or gas stations, request it as an alternative. Recycle both plastic and aluminum bottles locally and, when it comes to water, bring your own bottle.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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