Does My LaCroix Habit Make Me a Bad Person?
My thirst for canned fizzy water isn’t guiltless. But it’s easier on the planet than drinking beverages sold in glass or plastic because I recycle.
My LaCroix habit started innocently enough, as an indulgence limited strictly to social gatherings. But that soon swelled to a two-cans-a-day habit. Then the pandemic hit, I started working from home, and before I knew it, was downing half a case of pamplemousse-essenced canned water daily.
I am not alone in my amped-up beverage consumption. All canned drinks—whether sparkling water, soda, or beer—saw a boost in sales during the pandemic, creating unprecedented demand for aluminum cans. The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), a trade association of U.S. metal can manufacturers and suppliers in the U.S., reports that output grew more than 6 percent in 2020 from the prior year, to about 103 billion cans—2,500 of which I can personally account for.
Making a Case for Cans
It turns out that on a scale of plastic bottled-water drinking heathens to pious tap-water guzzlers, canned-water lovers fall somewhere in the middle. Compared with plastic and glass containers, recycled aluminum cans appear to be the best option when picking out a single-use beverage container, especially if it’s recycled afterward. Because aluminum never degrades, it is fully and infinitely recyclable into new cans in what should be a “closed-loop” system. Plastic and glass bottles are recycled into new bottles at a much lower rate, but an aluminum can has the potential to become a new can over and over again.
But even though aluminum cans are technically infinitely recyclable, that’s unfortunately not exactly what’s happening. “Aluminum can be a closed-loop system, but it’s misleading to call it that right now,” says L. Christina Cobb, a sustainable-living consultant. “We need to talk about what’s actually happening with the recycling rate.”
The average can is made of about three-quarters recycled content and one-quarter virgin aluminum mixed with other alloys. This ratio is actually a beverage industry superstar—two and a half times the recycled amount used in glass bottles and more than seven times the recycled amount used in plastic bottles—but just because it’s better than the alternatives doesn’t necessarily make it ideal. “We’re not at 100 percent because we need more cans recycled back to make new cans,” says Breen.
About half of all used cans in the U.S. end up in landfills—that’s roughly $800 million worth of aluminum each year, according to Metabolic Institute, a Netherlands-based sustainability research organization. Jack Buffington, PhD, assistant professor of supply chain management at the University of Denver, says all of that waste makes recycled aluminum a relatively scarce and expensive commodity—much more expensive than virgin aluminum—and part of the reason that some virgin aluminum is still required to make cans.
That virgin portion of the can comes from mining bauxite ore, which is environmentally destructive, and smelting its alumina contents into aluminum is an energy-intensive process. Compared with virgin aluminum, recycled aluminum requires 90 to 95 percent less energy to produce. Mining for ore and smelting it into aluminum is also more energy-intensive than producing plastic and glass from virgin materials.
The energy that would be saved by recycling the aluminum cans sent to landfills in the U.S. annually could power more than 2 million homes for a full year, according to the Aluminum Association.
Ways to Reduce Your Impact
Switching to aluminum from plastic or glass is definitely a step in the right direction, but only if we significantly raise our aluminum can recycling rate. Even so, there isn’t enough recycled aluminum to supply the increased demand, Buffington says. So if we’re serious about reducing the impact of our beverage consumption on the environment, we still need to—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—reduce our consumption of tasty tinned beverages.
Only about half of the aluminum cans Americans use are recycled (and that number is trending downward) while the aluminum recycling rates in some countries, such as Brazil and Germany, are at nearly 100 percent. Why? Buffington says it’s because some countries incentivize it at the consumer level and focus mainly on recycling aluminum, the moneymaker. In America, the demand for used cans is high, but there’s little incentive for people to recycle them. “It’s not valuable to you and me because we get just pennies per can,” he says.
The U.S. has 10 states with bottle bills, which require a deposit for returned cans and bottles: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. In these states, the recycling rate for beverage containers averages around 60 percent and reaches 89 percent in some states, while rates in non-deposit states only reach about 24 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI). But the 5 or 10 cents you get for each container in states that have bottle bills has never increased with inflation and may not be much of an incentive today. That may be why deposit rates are declining. And a new state hasn’t passed a bottle bill in the past 20 years.
“You can drink your drink but don’t just sit there,” Cobb says. “Get active, get involved in consumer activism.”
Two recent pieces of legislation introduced in Congress would substantially change how we use and recycle beverage containers: The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would reduce plastic production and increase recycling rates. The CLEAN Future Act would reform our nation’s recycling and waste management system, including instituting a national bottle deposit program. CRI estimates that a national container deposit system would likely increase the U.S. recycling rate for bottles and cans to 80 percent.
Write your elected officials and tell them to support these bills. While you’ve got the pen out, write your favorite beverage brand, too, and ask them to take more accountability for their disposable products and work with the government and waste management companies to figure out a way to increase aluminum recycling rates.
“Private-public partnerships, in large numbers and across all aspects of manufacturing and waste disposal, are a key to achieving scaled sustainable solutions,” Cobb says.
On the local level, make sure all your friends and family are recycling their cans, and then make sure your community’s public spaces—parks, beaches, sidewalks—provide recycling because a lot of the trashing happens away from home. If you don’t live in a state with a bottle bill, let people know they can still get money for cans. “Because of the high value of used beverage cans, most metal scrap yards in the United States will gladly take your used beverage cans and pay you for them,” Breen says.
Also, stop crushing your cans! Up to a quarter of the cans that do make it to recycling centers get missorted. According to Breen, one of the reasons could be that they’re crushed paper-thin and end up in the paper collections.
Cut Back Consumption
Recycling is good and all, but we still need to remember that “reduce” and “reuse” still come first. Since I’m no El Anatsui (a Ghanaian artist known for his large-scale aluminum-can and bottle-cap installations), there aren’t many options for me to reuse my empty cans. And while I feel good knowing that aluminum recycling can work way better than plastic and glass recycling, I’m still personally responsible for the consumption and disposal of thousands of cans a year. As much as I want to convince myself that recycling my cans is good enough, there’s still a lot of energy being used—from the canning and transportation processes, and beyond—just so I can get my fizz on.
And let’s not forget that there’s an actual product, another natural resource, inside those cans. “Find out where the water you’re consuming comes from,” Cobb says. “There’s a huge issue of aquifers being drained dry and freshwater sources like lakes and other natural formations being sucked up and overtapped by multinational corporations.”
In a last-ditch effort to prove that I am not the absolute worst, I looked into where LaCroix’s water comes from and what they’re doing to reduce their impact on the environment. National Beverage Corporation, which owns LaCroix, has 12 canning facilities, the closest one to me being the one in Baltimore, which uses municipal water. A National Beverage spokesperson also says the company has a lower carbon footprint than imported brands, focus on reducing packaging content, and have an efficient delivery system with lower greenhouse gas emissions than some competitors. That’s still better than drinking sparkling water sourced from far-off lakes in Europe and Fiji and bottled in plastic and glass bottles, right?
“Sure, LaCroix does it all [domestically], which is better, but still a bigger footprint than if you’re drinking water from your own municipal water source using a SodaStream or just plain ice water,” Cobb says. “Travesty, I know! Bubble-less water.”