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Testing the mettle of the aluminum cup

Which is better: reusable, unrecyclable plastic or single-use, recyclable aluminum?

Which is better: reusable, unrecyclable plastic or single-use, recyclable aluminum?

Before we start: If you’re wondering, "How could you write about anything other than COVID-19 at a time like this?" I’ll assure you, it’s not easy. That said, during this strange time as many of us find ourselves sheltered in place and socially distanced, I welcome the intellectual distraction. Over the coming weeks, I plan to take advantage of the downtime to indulge in some backburner questions and musings I haven’t yet had a chance to tackle in Circular Weekly. This brings us to the single-use aluminum cup. 

From the Super Bowl to the Phoenix Open, a growing number of event-goers have guzzled down beverages in a new kind of cup marketed as "a sustainability game-changer," made of at least 70 percent recycled aluminum. Since Ball Corp launched its pilot in September, the company has swapped hundreds of thousands of landfill-bound plastic cups for aluminum alternatives at events across the United States. 

As aluminum enthusiasts frequently will remind you, this material is "infinitely recyclable," meaning that it can be recycled over and over without degradation, unlike its plastics counterparts, which lose quality with each recycling. To that effect, these organizations often cite that 75 percent of the world's aluminum ever produced is still in use today.  

At a time when many consumers are rethinking single-use plastics, and given that most plastics are not actually recyclable (PDF) through typical channels, an aluminum cup sounds like an ideal alternative.

Without comprehensive and up-to-date life-cycle assessments to quantitatively compare each option, much of the comparison is mostly guesswork — or marketing claims.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," Sebastian Siethoff, general manager of aluminum cups at Ball Corp., told me in a recent interview. Gearing up to scale to more event venues across the United States, Ball has invested $200 million into building a manufacturing facility in Georgia that is set to come online in Q4 of 2020.

But not everyone agrees that aluminum is the best alternative, and some argue that Ball is selectively sharing claims that don’t hold water. 

"The aluminum industry can play on the fact that its product is infinitely recyclable, and they’re right," said Martin Barrow, director of footprinting at nonprofit consultancy the Carbon Trust, in an interview. "But primary aluminum uses huge amounts of electricity, and it’s also got some chemical releases of greenhouse gas emissions." And when 30 percent of Ball’s aluminum is made from virgin material rather than recycled content, the carbon footprint adds up.  

As reuse models pick up speed, companies such as r.Cup and Globelet are hoping to shift venues away from single-use options altogether. Recently named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2020, r.Cup has partnered with dozens of artists, including U2, Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and Mumford & Sons, to bring reuse to the masses.

"At live events, nothing actually gets recycled," r.Cup Founder and CEO Michael Martin recently told me. "That’s why reuse is the only real option here." r.Cup uses a deposit model in which concert-goers pay a $3 or $4 deposit for a cup, use it throughout the event and reclaim the value once they return the cup; they also can keep the cup if they wish, forfeiting the deposit. According to Martin, the company’s cups need to be reused only six times to deliver a lighter carbon footprint than the single-use industry standards. 

In practice, comparing the environmental impacts of aluminum and plastic can depend on a variety of factors. Whether we’re talking about cups, bottles or cans, the "best" option — as usual — depends on the footprint of manufacturing and transportation, the availability and location of recycling infrastructure, end markets for each material, consumer behavior and collection, as well as financial feasibility and a slew of other considerations. Without comprehensive and up-to-date life-cycle assessments to quantitatively compare each option, much of the comparison is mostly guesswork — or marketing claims. 

A far greater opportunity, however, may be in engaging individuals at the events themselves. "We’re really changing consumer behaviors," Siethoff told me. "If you go to a party, people often pour a drink, take a few sips, then throw it away. The cup doesn’t get a full usage at all. But consumers perceive the value of these aluminum cups, and have a propensity to reuse and recycle them." Mike Martin explained the same benefit of targeting events as an ideal forum to educate consumers, and train them to engage in reuse. 

In the end, all this is reminiscent of the paper-versus-plastic (shopping bags) and cloth-versus-disposables (diapers) debates of decades past. Clearly, these questions are complex, making any marketing claims thorny, if not problematic.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

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