Plastic bottles have become common sights at grocery and convenience stores. In fact, over the past couple of decades, the growth in plastic has been so dramatic you might think that eventually plastic will completely replace aluminum beverage cans. Not so fast. According to recent data, aluminum is making a comeback, and in fact it might be those plastic bottles that one day completely disappear from the shelves.
Why the dramatic shift? The industry is finally waking up to the many advantages of aluminum. When it comes to health, safety and sustainability, aluminum wins out over plastic almost every time. Today we’ll be looking at how aluminum is changing the beverage industry and what manufacturers should expect in the years to come.
The history of aluminum cans
It might be hard to believe for younger readers, but before aluminum and plastic, there was a time when most store bought drinks came in glass bottles. Glass has been relegated to something of a novelty item, as both aluminum and plastic are more durable and less prone to breakage.
What we think of as the modern aluminum beverage can first appeared on store shelves in 1959 thanks to the Adolph Coors Company. Before this, beverages could only be purchased in tin cans, which required a special lining on the interior to protect the liquid from reacting with the metal, a problem that was alleviated by the move to aluminum.
Remarkably, at the same time Coors introduced the aluminum can, they also instituted a recycling program, paying 1 penny for every can that was returned. When Royal Crown Cola released its new 12-ounce aluminum container in 1964, they packaged 1 million cases using aluminum within the first year. Aluminum was a game changer not only because of its durability, but it was lightweight compared to tin or steel, was completely non-toxic, and even had a better surface for adding graphics and logos.
Advances in packaging technology over the next several decades led to aluminum being widely used for holding single serve liquids, but it was impractical for larger amounts of liquid, and eventually developments in plastic led to a market shift. Plastic is cheaper, and the fact it is transparent was appealing to customers.
Why the shift back to aluminum?
So, if plastic has proven so popular as to marginalize aluminum in recent years, why are companies looking to change now? While there are several reasons for this, the primary motivator can be summarized with a single word: sustainability.
Plastic recycling has been around for years. You might imagine that when you send your old plastic receptacles off to the recycler, that they somehow get processed into new bottles. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Most plastic bottles are so thin, they can’t be turned into new bottles. Instead, they get transformed into fibers that can then be used in other products, such as carpets, clothing, and sleeping bags.
And because plastic isn’t very valuable as a recycled material, especially compared to glass or aluminum, much of it just becomes waste. This has proven to be a huge problem, as plastic bottles have polluted our oceans and wreaked havoc on the environment. The production of plastic also relies on oil.
On the other hand, aluminum is easily recycled, and a strong ecosystem has been built up over multiple decades to collect and repurpose aluminum products. So, while the production of aluminum also involves an invasive mining and extraction process, its ability to be recycled indefinitely lends itself well to sustainability efforts. In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 75% of all aluminum ever produced in the United States is still in use today.
The future of aluminum bottles
For these reasons, aluminum is making a comeback. Some of the biggest beverage companies on the planet have decided to make a switch. Coca-Cola recently announced that it will be introducing a new line of its Dasani brand water featuring aluminum cans in the northeastern U.S.
There director of packaging innovation was quoted as saying, “Designing our packages to reduce the amount of raw materials used and incorporating recycled and renewable content in our bottles to help drive a circular economy for our packaging is an important part of our commitment to doing business the right way.” (https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190813005114/en/DASANI%C2%AE-Takes-New-Steps-Reduce-Plastic-Waste)
Pepsi also has its own brand of bottled water, Aquafina, and they announced a similar move to aluminum for reasons of sustainability. The keyword in the Coke announcement was circular. What is driving the reassessment of aluminum as a material is the knowledge that once it has been extracted, the aluminum will have a much longer lifecycle in our economy.
One other benefit of aluminum that hasn’t been mentioned is that it is biocompatible. That means there’s no issue of toxicity. There is growing evidence that many kinds of plastics used to package food and beverages can lead to a host of health problems, with cancer chief among them. While the research is still not certain about how much plastic exposure is needed before it will affect humans, just the uncertainty is enough to make aluminum a more attractive option.
Some final advantages of aluminum that should be mentioned include the fact that because cans are stackable and more efficient to store (plus the fact aluminum is one of the lightest metals) the overall carbon footprint of shipping aluminum cans is reduced. Aluminum cans also require less energy to chill due to the thermal conductivity of aluminum.
Your Technical Services Professional
One key aspect of the aluminum value chain is working with an experienced material supplier who can get you the right alloy and product. At Clinton Aluminum, our dedicated team of technical professionals is committed to working with our clients to ensure they are making sustainable purchasing decisions. We’re happy to answer your questions and give you detailed information regarding which aluminum alloy is right for you.
Contact a member of our friendly and knowledgeable sales team today.