There is no place for you in a healthy, circular economy, and this is nothing to celebrate.
It is Beer Can Appreciation Day in America, celebrating the day in 1935 when the first beer was sold in a can. It has been a TreeHugger tradition to recognize this day, and now we have more reasons than ever to complain. The real change in beer came about in 1959 when Bill Coors sold beer in a two-piece aluminum can. Instead of patenting the design, he open-sourced it so that everyone in the industry could use it. Now 60 percent of all beer sold in the USA is packaged in totally recyclable aluminum, totalling 36 billion cans in 2017.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let us count the ways.
1. They don’t all get recycled, creating huge demand for primary aluminum.
65 percent of aluminum cans are recycled, but more than a million tons of aluminum are going to landfill. Apparently “Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.”
It takes 20 times as much energy to make a new can as it does to make a recycled one, so replacing those 12.6 billion cans that are landfilled has a huge carbon footprint. And as noted earlier, we have to stop making virgin aluminum; the carbon footprint is too high.
2. Beer used to be local. Now it is shipped in big trucks all over the country because of cans.
In 1947, 86 percent of beer was sold in refillable bottles. But then they built the highway system for civil defense. I wrote previously:
Canned beer became the American standard with the completion of the interstate highway system, which let brewers build massive centralized breweries and ship the stuff all over the country by truck. But you couldn’t do that with returnable bottles, as the distribution and handling of bottles was a local business. So the brewers took their huge savings from their massive, efficient beer factories and put it into advertising and price cutting, and put almost every local brewery out of business.
3. The cans are lined with hormone-disrupting BPA epoxy that leaches into the beer.
Even the industry admits it. According to industry mag Beer Advocate:
Human exposure to bisphenol A is widespread and it does quantifiably leach into beer,” says Jaime Jurado, director of brewing operations at Abita Brewing, pointing to a Canadian study that measured BPA in eight of eight beer cans it sampled. In contrast, the study only found BPA in one of the eight beer bottles it studied. Still, Jurado says, just because you detect BPA doesn’t mean you’ve proven that it’s harmful. That area still needs more research. “Little information on the effects of BPA on development in humans is available,” explains Jurado.
But as Katherine notes, “Studies of humans, mice, monkeys, and sheep all point to the same scary conclusion — that BPA wreaks havoc on the female reproductive system.” It’s particularly hard on millennial moms-to-be who are consuming an “ovarian toxicant” that could cause their sons to get prostate cancer.
BPA does indeed have a serious effect on the developing brain, heart, lung, prostate, mammary gland, sperm and eggs. This spurred a widespread rejection of BPA in many consumer products, which is why it’s now common to see ‘BPA-free’ labels on certain plastics.
We have written about studies concluding that BPA contributes to heart disease, obesity, reduced penis size, man boobs, making girls mean and making you stupid and depressed. It is a synthetic hormone that’s now banned in baby bottles and run off the market in the water bottle world. Yet that polymer lining in every beer can is made with BPA and people willingly drink it. They’re nuts.
4. There is no place for single-use cans in a circular economy
In much of the world, people do what hosers like me do: they go to the beer store and buy a 6 or 12 or 24 pack of bottled beer. When they are done, they take it back to the beer store for the deposit and get another. It’s not hard. 96.1 percent of the bottles are returned and they are used an average of 15 times.
Instead, with canned beer, the 65 percent of the cans that get recycled are crushed, then cleaned chemically to remove the paint on the outside and the BPA on the inside, then melted. According to one recycler, that’s just the start;
There is a somewhat more technical phase, in which aluminum in the liquid state is degassed, and the slag and dissolved hydrogen are removed. This process is done to decontaminate the aluminum chemically. Before finishing the aluminum recycling process, a sample of the result still melted is taken, then, and depending on the characteristics of the aluminum, a mixture of high purity aluminum is added. There are several types; depending on the result we want to achieve we must add aluminum 6061, 7075, 1100 or other.
It isn’t such a clean and tidy process; Carl Zimrig wrote in Aluminum Upcycled: “Although the contaminants released by recycling pale compared to the ecological damage of mining and smelting primary aluminum, the waste products of scrap recycling must be considered when considering the consequences of returning the metal to production.”
In what world is this simpler than washing and refilling a bottle? Who benefits from such a system? It is all a way of avoiding producer responsibility, and shifting these costs to the taxpayer who subsidizes the highways that the big trucks run on, the taxpayers who pay for the recycling collection and then try to squeeze a few bucks out of the aluminum, though these days even that is a problem.
5. The whole thing is a scam.
I summarized it on an earlier January 24th:
The dominance of the American beer can is a story of the victory of centralized mass production instead of local, big business destroying small, the change from a reusable container to a disposable one, the switch from short-range shipping of a locally consumed product to the logistics of nationwide diesel transport, from healthy glass to BPA epoxy lined aluminum cans. It is nothing to celebrate.
You should not be drinking canned beer. Period.
Happy 83rd Birthday, American beer can. Now go away.
There is no place for you in a healthy, circular economy, and this is nothing to celebrate