Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It's Time to Rethink the Aluminum Can

Organic Advocate
By Bill Duesing

Each week Americans toss roughly a billion aluminum cans into the landfill and roughly another billion into the recycling bin.

Our country should be leading the way toward a more livable future, but with our profligate energy and resource use, we are leading in the opposite direction.

Americans use more energy per capita than residents of any country except Canada and several small, Middle East oil producers.  Based on 2011 numbers each American uses almost 50 percent more energy than the average Russian, almost twice as much as the French, Germans and Japanese, over twice as much as the British and Italians and three times as much as the Chinese.  We use 11 times what the average Indian uses and 34 times a Bangladeshi's daily energy use!

Yet, we all have roughly the same basic needs and live on the same planet.

And the news about the health of the earth keeps getting worse. The vast majority of scientists believe that it is because of the way we humans are living.  If you haven't seen enough bad news yet, see note 1 for some recent recommended sources.  Worrisome changes are happening in more places and faster than most anyone imagined.

The idea for this essay started with beer cans.  A recent college graduate told me about his just-for-now job putting labels on beer cans.  The empty beer cans are delivered by truck from somewhere in New York to a Connecticut business that applies labels. The empty cans are all repacked for trucking to a New Hampshire can-filling facility where these well-traveled cans are sanitized and finally filled with beer for sale anywhere and everywhere.  The beer that fills the cans is brewed in Vermont.

This story provides a great opportunity to learn the important differences between matter and energy: in what they are, in how they move and transform and in the results of those movements and transformations.  It also helps us understand the concept of "embodied energy."

Knowing these physical realities should help us design a more livable future which requires fewer resources, consumes less energy and produces less waste.

Matter can neither be created nor destroyed.  Earth is made of matter.  Very little matter is added or removed from Earth. In nature's plan, most matter is continually reused and recycled. The same atoms of matter are used over and over again.

Beer itself is matter, mostly water, containing alcohol created by yeast as it consumes a malted grain, flavored by hops. For at least 5,000 years and maybe twice that long, humans have made and consumed beer created with a wide variety of plant products.

The matter in beer comes from fields and water systems.  After it is used as intended, the matter (except for that which becomes part of the drinker's body) flows through a sewer or septic system before rejoining the earth's water system.

Matter can always be recycled.

Once in a container, the beer also comes to us with more matter. Glass, steel and aluminum are all used to deliver beer to drinkers and all are made of matter that can be recycled.

Energy can't be created or destroyed either, but unlike matter, it can NOT be recycled or reused. Energy moves in one direction - downhill.  That is, from a more useful form to a less useful one, leaving entropy or disorder behind.

The beer itself contains energy.  There are between 100 and 170 calories of food energy in the beer in a 12 ounce can. That energy all came from the sun, was captured by plants and processed by yeast. One beer provides enough energy to power a human for roughly two hours. (That is the energy equivalent of about 0.005 of a gallon of gas.  One gallon of gas contains the quantity of energy needed to power a human for about 15 days. No wonder we like it.) Note 2.

The energy that was in the beer ends up as waste heat slightly warming the drinker's environment.  Although that energy started out at the sun and could power plant growth, you can't run photosynthesis on a body's waste heat. That's energy's usefulness really going downhill!

Once we put the beer in a container, a more complicated energy picture emerges. None of these containers provides any energy to the drinker, although each took a lot of energy to produce.

Embodied Energy
Here is where the idea of embodied energy comes in handy.  That is the name for all the energy that was consumed to make something. The embodied energy concept may have been less important when energy seemed plentiful and its use was without consequence. Now we know more about the consequences.

Black Hog Brewing Co. offer reusable "Squealer"
The embodied energy in the beer is the energy that was used for planting, fertilizing, managing pests, weeding, harvesting, shipping grain and hops, for malting the grain, drying the hops and then brewing the beer. Simply put, that is all the energy it takes to grow and harvest the ingredients and process them into beer. People did all this for thousands of years without any fossil fuels or electricity. The product was worth the labor required. This requirement likely limited consumption.

In our current, historically brief, period of rampant energy use, we have included lots of fossil and electrical
energy in all these processes: planting, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, drying and more. Therefore, contemporary beer contains more embodied energy, and much more fossil and electric energy than the beer Shakespeare might have drunk. None of that energy provides any food calories or nutrients.

Filling up our growler at Two Roads
If we put the beer in a single-use container, a can or bottle, we bring more embodied energy into the picture.  Glass, aluminum and steel all take a LOT of energy to make. Aluminum is the most energy-intensive.

There is a promising development - the trend in Connecticut and many other places toward smaller local craft breweries.  Many of these serve beer at the brewery, completely eliminating packaging.  Many sell beer in large refillable glass jugs called growlers. Many have their beer available on tap at local restaurants and drinking establishments. In our state we have many good examples of this.

Aluminum Can
Now back to the fact that if we put beverages in a single-use container, a can or bottle, we bring more embodied energy into the picture. 

For example, take an aluminum can, a very common container for beer, soda and other beverages.  That can comes embodied with all the energy it took to make the can: the energy it took to mine and process bauxite ore in Australia or Jamaica and to ship the resulting alumina to Washington state for smelting.  (Smelting aluminum is one of the processes most damaging to the global climate, and to salmon. It takes enormous amounts of subsidized electricity.)  The can also contains the energy it took to turn the ingot of aluminum into a can, as it moved from a mill to a factory before being painted, baked, coated and baked again.  That's about where we were in the story above. Note 3.

When was the last time you made an aluminum can at home?  Each step consumes fossil and electrical energy in multiple ways and creates many small and large scale environmental problems. All in order to hold 12 ounces of mostly water for a few weeks or months. However, many people are finding out how easy and wonderful it is to make beer at home. And local craft breweries are increasingly making their products available in more environmentally sound ways.

A virgin aluminum can (with no recycled content) has as much embodied energy as the gas it takes to fill it one quarter of the way; that is three ounces.  That energy is equivalent to 738 food calories, or enough to power a human for at least eight hours.  That means that the can contains over four times as much energy as the beer provides. (Imagine the ratios for various low and no calorie beverages. They approach infinity.)
So it makes sense that the can itself costs more than the beverage inside.  (Perhaps the can also produces more profit). 

Once the can is filled the whole thing gains more embodied energy as it moves from filler to wholesaler, retailer and consumption point using even more energy and trucks.

The entropy from those energy transformations as ore becomes a discarded can shows up all over the globe - at ruined mining sites, with toxic substances at each step, with dammed and dredged rivers, cans on the side of the road and with climate change everywhere.

If the aluminum can is recycled that will greatly reduce the energy use for the next can.  A can with 33 percent recycled content has a third less embodied energy in the aluminum.  That can still contains about enough energy to keep a human going almost six hours.  But recycling involves more travel, processing, heat, a new label and coating and two more bakings, filling and delivery, and more trucks carrying empty cans on the highways.

A can that is not recycled will be in the environment for longer than a human lifetime.  Seems like a big price to quench a thirst.

Older solutions
Until sometime in the last century, beer was essentially local. Most of the time, refillable kegs and bottles moved beer a relatively short distance from brewery to drinkers. As recently as the middle of the last century many Connecticut towns had one or more breweries.  It just made sense. 

Reusable kegs, made of wood or steel and refillable glass bottles contain embodied energy, but that energy can be divided by a large number of refillings.

The big push in the 1950s and beyond toward no-deposit, no-return containers for beer (and soda and milk) allowed a bigger separation between brewer and drinker and eventually the current enormous concentration of beverage companies' ownership.  But that is another whole story.

Current Situation
Growth in local craft breweries aside,  for beer and soda, just a few giant global corporations now dominate the market.  They are all trying to get us to drink more and more of whatever they are selling.  Flavor and size options proliferate in the drive to sell increased numbers of beverages in a can. The planet and communities everywhere are damaged by the making and delivery of the cans and, in many cases, by their contents.

(Remember that the two big soda, tea, water, coffee, juice and energy drink companies are also major funders of the effort to BLOCK our right to know if our food contains GMOs.)

In the face of climate and other resource constraints it is unlikely that we will be able to sustain the kind of growth in aluminum can use we have seen in the past few decades.  Energy is too valuable to be wasted in such a profligate way- to hold in our hand for just a few minutes before disposal.

Other ways
I am likely tilting at windmills to think that letting folks know how destructive and silly it is to buy and discard a new aluminum container with each 12 ounces of beverage will make a difference. (Perhaps a few more folks will decide to join those of us who avoid aluminum cans and other single serve containers as much a possible). 
However I was encouraged by Mark Bittman's recent column in the NY Times about New York City's ban on foam food containers.  He cites the exciting progress made in a number of other municipal, state and national jurisdictions in banning or taxing energy and environmentally expensive packaging.  He writes: "municipalities and sometimes even states are asserting themselves against the rightof industry to sell whatever it wants, and more of the public is willing to have government alter its behavior when the reasons are sound.

The home brewing movement, the increasing value people put on drinking water, and the trend toward smaller local craft breweries are all promising steps in the right direction.

I heard the story about the traveling beer cans the same day that Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy said the following in his 2015 state of the state speech:
 We need to change the ways we commute, the ways our businesses move their products, and the ways we get around our cities and towns. Its time for Connecticut to establish a collective vision for the next thirty years. A vision for a best-in-class transportation system.

We can have an open and honest discussion of what needs to happen to transform our infrastructure to meet the challenges and demands of the 21st Century.

Do we make the roads wider and better so more trucks can haul more empty beer cans through the state or should we perhaps change the way we drink beer and soda?

It's up to us to design a sustainable and livable future.  The more we know about what's going on, the easier that will hopefully be.


1. Recently the NY Times has had alarming stories about the failing health of the oceans and cod;
Website mashable.com and NYTimes blogs detailed the warmest year ever.

I also just read Elizabeth Kolbert's very engaging (and frightening) The Sixth Extinction: An unatural history, Naomi Oreskes's and Erik M. Conway's The Collapse of Western Civilization: A view from the future and am in the middle of Michael T. Klare's The Race for What's Left: The global scramble for the world's last resources. All of these books predict a dire future if we don't significantly change our resource consumption and our way of living. It is important to remember that the planet's ability to absorb waste gases without causing severe problems is a valuable resource that is currently very much over used.

2. There is the equivalent of 31,500 food Calories of energy in one gallon of gasoline. I've used 2,000 as a round number for the number of calories a human needs each day.  We and our cars consume carbon-containing substances to provide the energy we need, taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide.

3. Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, provides a lot of information about the making of aluminum cans.  The quantity of electricity used in the process is enormous and easier to quantify than many of the other energy uses, so most energy studies focus on that aspect.  Of course there are so many other uses of energy that likely no one knows how much is consumed in making and delivering a beverage in an aluminum can.  Until now, we have relied on the market to make these design decisions.  However, since the market hasn't included environmental factors such as mine spoils and climate change and hasn't really accounted for all the subsidies "embodied" in each can of beverage, those decisions don't any longer make sense. (Subsidies include those taxpayers and ratepayers provide for electricity, fossil fuels, water and waste disposal, as well as the costs of environmental and human health effects)

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