Have you ever wondered which is the lesser of two evils, aluminum cans or plastic bottles?
Let’s face it: they both consume resources and produce waste, from production to disposal. As much as we like to recycle, nothing can be 100% recycled. Factoring in energy and resource consumption during the recycling and distribution process, recycling aluminum cans and plastic bottles may not be effective. Yes, cans are recyclable; however, more than half of the cans produced are improperly disposed, creating pollution. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), 50 billion cans are wasted every year ending up in landfills, incinerated, or littered. A CRI study reported the national average of recycled aluminum was only 48%. During the recycling process, cans need to be cleaned, melted, and re-processed to make new cans. Throughout this process, there is an input of energy and resources, so we are also consuming in an indirect way.
Plastic is one of the major technological advances of the 21st century. It is versatile, disposable, and widely used. Stop and think: how much do we consume yet don’t recycle? Doug James from Cornell University helps us understand the reality of plastic in his video, “The Twenty-First Century waterfall,” where he presents a shocking statistic: “US consumption of bottle of water reached 30 billion bottles per year in 2005…only 12% were recycled.” Almost 90% of plastic bottles end up everywhere but the recycling center.
Aside from being an eye sore and contributing to the growing problem of pollution, plastic poses a health risk to humans and animals. The majority of plastic is made from toxic chemicals. When the plastic starts to break down, these chemicals leach out into the environment. Most of us ingest these toxins every day. Animals, such as birds and sea turtles, confuse plastic bottles for food. On a bigger scale, plastics end up in the ocean and breakdown. The most infamous area is the Big Ocean Patch in the Pacific Ocean. Sure, cans and plastics are recyclable but not necessarily remade into cans and bottles; instead they are made into textiles and other diversity of uses.
Let’s face it: the recycling scene in the U.S. is another “feel better about your consumerist society”. It is not solving the pollution problem when most of the cans and plastics are not being recycled. Instead, bottles end up in bird’s stomachs, toxins accumulate in our bodies, and huge garbage patches are created in the middle of the Pacific. So when buying something from the vending machine, think twice about where the aluminum can or plastic bottle is probably going to end up.