Ask Eartha: What’s the difference between aluminum and plastic?

Founded by Jason Momoa, Mananalu has spun off from rePurpose Global and is removing one plastic bottle from the ocean for every aluminum water bottle sold.
Megan Wagaman/High Country Conservation Center

Dear Eartha,

Recently, I have noticed that some grocery stores carry aluminum water bottles in addition to plastic water bottles. Both are recyclable, does it really matter which one I buy?

Although many of us own (and sometimes forget to bring) reusable bottles, bottled water consumption is on the rise. In 2020, Americans consumed 15 billion gallons — approximately 22,000 Olympic-sized pools — of bottled water. We are hydrated, but we don’t recycle. The average American uses 167 bottles a year but only recycles 38.

Some people choose bottled water simply because it’s a healthier alternative to sugary sodas, and many say they trust the quality of bottled water more than tap water. In Summit County, we are blessed with access to clean, safe drinking water. Refills of this fresh mountain water are always preferred. But if you need to fetch a water bottle, go for aluminum when you have the choice. Let’s dig.

The journey of a plastic and aluminum bottle

What is plastic, anyway? Crude oil or natural gas is extracted from the earth, after which it is refined and turned into all kinds of plastics, including water bottles. If an empty plastic bottle is lucky enough to end up in the recycling bin, these plastic bottles are often melted down and turned into fabrics, usually turning into synthetic clothing., rugs and other polyester-based articles. The quality of the plastic is lost over time and eventually becomes trash. This process is called downcycling, instead of recycling.

Aluminum is also taken from the earth and transformed into all types of products. We are much better at recycling aluminum (50% of aluminum products against about 30% plastics), and the bottles and cans that end up in the right bin are recycled over and over again – endlessly! Even better? Major aluminum producers make big commitments to use more recycled aluminum in their products. This sets a standard for businesses around the world and reduces future exploitation.

Impacts on people and the planet

When plastic bottles sit in your hot car or sit on the grocery store shelf for long periods of time, the chemicals that were used to create the plastics leach into the water. A 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, or even just left out in the sun while on a picnic. This chemical alone is linked to many health problems. As with aluminum bottles, the contents have been shown to stay clean. Many myths about the supposed health risks of aluminum have now been debunked by researchers. It’s very safe to drink from aluminum and keep refilling the bottle several times afterward, while plastic will slowly leach BPA and other chemicals into drinking water if you keep refilling it.

So, if plastic water bottles aren’t recycled, what happens to them? Some make it to landfill, but often they end up strewn on roadsides or in polluting waterways. A single plastic water bottle takes 450 years to decompose. But when they get trapped in willows along local streams or left behind 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 then find their way into the waterways we drink from or the food we eat, and eventually into our bodies.

Reusable ruler

It is everyone’s responsibility to speak out in favor of clean and healthy drinking water. You can even ask your school or office for a water filtration system or hydration station that encourages reusable bottles. If you don’t see aluminum as an option at local grocery stores or gas stations, ask for it as an alternative. Recycle plastic and aluminum bottles locally, and for water, bring your own bottle.

Megan Wagaman
High Country Conservation Center / Courtesy Photo

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff of the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Send your questions to [email protected].

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