Is Aluminum Bottled Water Better than Plastic?

As of 2021, bottled water became the top beverage of choice in U.S. history, surpassing soft drinks' all-time reach of 15.3 billion gallons per year, at 15.7 billion gallons of water, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC). As we crave healthier beverages, we also tend to make more sustainable choices and be conscious of our bottled water packaging. It's no surprise because healthier choices and sustainable moves are closely intertwined. When grabbing water at the gym, airport, or market, we want to make the best choice: Aluminum or plastic, alkaline, sparkling, or still. When it comes to material, we'll explore some of the key comparables and determine if Aluminum bottled water is better than plastic.

In a brief beverage-choosing moment, it can be overwhelming to evaluate all the options and make an educated choice. Sure we can do a quick google search, but what we pick from the water line-up often comes down to marketing and the packaging that convinces us we've made the right choice. But what's more impactful is arming ourselves with the knowledge beforehand.

So the next time you're faced with choosing the best, most sustainable bottled water, we wanted to give you some things to consider. Especially since we're not really taught how bottled water is made, packaged, and delivered to the point where we purchase it and where it goes once we've used it. On the shelf, plastic and single-use dominate, taking up massive sections, but new, more responsible bottled water options are beginning to show up on store shelves. Here's how to know which is better; Aluminum or plastic?


Aluminum Bottled Water

Is Aluminum Bottled Water Better than Plastic? | PATH

Aluminum bottled water is emerging as one of the top packaging materials; many brands have launched single-use canned water. Even better is when bottles are created durable and made for reuse rather than single-use. The impressive part of using Aluminum for packaging is that it's 100% recyclable in both single-use and refillable forms. That's good to know since not all recyclables are created equal.

Aluminum bottled water is emerging as one of the top packaging materials; many brands have launched single-use canned water. Even better is when bottles are created durable and made for reuse rather than single-use. The impressive part of using Aluminum for packaging is that it's 100% recyclable in both single-use and refillable forms. That's good to know since not all recyclables are created equal.

Aluminum can be recycled infinitely, meaning when you choose an aluminum bottle, and when you recycle it, it gets turned into another container. If everyone who chooses Aluminum bottled water recycles it when they're done, the aluminum bottle will be recycled and made into another bottle forever. Although every recycling process has its challenges, Aluminum is agreed to be the best because it's durable, easily recyclable, hard to contaminate, and contributes to eliminating single-use plastic waste.

The Aluminum Industry is always looking to improve the process and become even more sustainable by increasing recycled materials and powering through renewable energy. New technology is rolling out to make Aluminum reprocessing more sustainable, and nearly every manufacturing process creates carbon in one way or another. Still, efforts in the aluminum industry are being made to reduce and, where possible, eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by transitioning to clean energy. 


Recap:

  • Aluminum is lightweight, which costs less carbon for travel
  • Localized packaging reduces shipping carbon
  • Aluminum is the most recycled 
  • Aluminum beverages contain 3X to 20X more recycled content than glass or PET bottles
  • Aluminum beverage containers are valued at $991 per ton
  • Aluminum can be decoupled from carbon
  • Efforts are starting to be made toward renewable energy

Single-Use Plastic Bottled Water

Unsurprisingly, plastic bottled water is not an ideal package for water. We know there are better options than the stacked shelves of plastic that haunt grocery stores. Plastic bottles take up nearly the entire water section, but interest in sustainability has drastically grown. It's becoming common knowledge that single-use plastic bottled water is recycled less, ends up in landfills, and is littered on land and in the oceans. The plastic waste that goes to incinerators and ends up in landfills releases carbon emissions and toxins into the air. Dioxins, Furans, Mercury, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls, get into the atmosphere, and when we breathe air containing these chemicals, it can affect our central nervous system.

While we would love for plastic to be recycled, it is a highly complex process that requires pristine recycled plastic and the addition of virgin plastic (more carbon emissions with extraction). Learn more about the complications of plastic recycling if you've ever asked the question, do plastic water bottles really get recycled?

PET is the resin that plastic bottled water, carbonated drinks, juices, etc., are packaged in. PET is made from extracted crude oil. Crude oil is pumped out of the ground and sent to refineries, then made into products that fuel our cars, heat our homes, make our clothes, furniture, electronics, and packaging for bottled water. Here's the thing, PET is from a non-renewable source, crude oil, and is a high emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The other issue that could arise with PET is the chemicals that affect our bodies and, over time, may cause health problems, which the Center for Environmental Law has explained here.


Single-use bottled water facts recap:

  • Plastic bottles are valued at $205/ton for PET
  • Plastic recycling rates are declining since 2020 from 30% down to 27.1%
  • Plastic is lightweight and lowers carbon for travel
  • PET Plastic is a petrochemical product meaning it can never be decarbonized or decoupled from fossil fuels

Aluminum vs. plastic, which is better? The Results

Many studies show that Aluminum wins. Refillable Aluminum bottled water is number one; next are single-use aluminum cans, and last are single-use plastic bottled water.

 REPORT: Aluminum Beverage Can Retains Edge as Most Sustainable Drinks Package | PATH

Source: REPORT: Aluminum Beverage Can Retains Edge as Most Sustainable Drinks Package. - The Aluminum Association

 


We can put our minds at ease about the aluminum bottled water we just drank; it will be put back on shelves as often as it keeps being recycled without compromising its packaging value. Plastic is more complicated since there is no way to recycle PET without mixing in new oil pumped from the ground, also known as virgin plastic. Learn more about the PET recycling process here. Another hiccup with PET beverage containers is that they must be pristine and not contaminated to be used in the recycling process toward another bottle. Instead, it is likely sent down the line to make a lesser product, called downcycling, or tossed in the trash if it can’t be recycled. For it to be recycled, aluminum does not need special treatment by consumers before it goes into the recycling system. Recycling plastic does require more care and has lower recycling rates at 27% versus aluminum at 68% on average, based on U.S. EPA data.

Reusable Aluminum Is the Best Alternative to Single-Use and Plastic Water Bottles

Going beyond the aluminum or plastic question, reuse will always be the best option for the environment. Landfills are running out of space worldwide, and these storage problems continue to be an issue that we are now being forced to address. Manufacturers of single-use plastic products are trying to buy time while figuring out how to achieve better recycling rates; some brands are now changing their packaging. PATH was born as the go-to, infinitely recyclable aluminum bottle for people who want to #refillit and make an impact. 


Reusable Aluminum Is the Best Alternative to Single-Use and Plastic Water Bottles | PATH


 

Resources

https://sciencing.com/carbon-footprint-plastic-bottle-12307187.html 

Pacific Institute:Carbon Footprint of Bottled Water https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009/pdf

Stanford: Carbon footprint of bottled water https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=30619

University of Wisconsin: Carbon footprint of refillable bottled water vs bottled water https://sustainability.wisc.edu/refillable-water-bottles-research-in-progress/

US Massachusetts’s University study on carbon footprint of bottled water: http://www.mwra.state.ma.us/

Nature: Carbon footprint comparison of tap water and bottled water http://precedings.nature.com/documents/3407/version/1

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