This guide outlines whether aluminum is more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.
It is a fairly short guide, as many of the sustainability considerations comparing metals and plastic we already outlined in this guide.
Summary – Is Aluminum More Sustainable Than Plastic?
- Refer to the linked guide above for the general sustainability of metals like stainless steel vs plastic
- Some sustainability consideration of aluminum in particular can be found below
- Note – aluminum can be used in a range of products and items such as bottles, cans, containers, windows and doors, and more
Aluminum vs Plastic: Comparison
The sustainability of aluminum bottles (vs. plastic bottles):
- Aluminum comes from bauxite – depletion is not really a major issue
- Aluminum production is one of the most energy intensive industries – even more intensive than stainless steel production
- Using recycling aluminum cans instead of raw material uses ‘five percent of the energy and generates five percent of the emissions’ ( carbon emissions are 96% less)
- Aluminum has a high recycling rate as a material compared to plastic
- There can be concerns around the lining of aluminum cans and bottles – it may contain BPA like plastic does
- Aluminum as a material used in bottles or cans may have a higher carbon footprint than glass, plastic, and tetra pak
- Aluminum may degrade quicker than plastic
Plastic vs metal packaging:
- Overall, plastic tends to be more environmentally as packaging over a range of eco indicators compared to metal and other materials
- Aluminium is abundant as a resource
- Plastic uses a fraction of energy in production that aluminum and tin do
- When the production process for each is compared it is found that 1 kg of Polyethylene plastics produce around 4 kg CO2 and 1 kg aluminum produces 10.63 kg CO2
- Plastic takes far longer to break down compared to aluminum
- Aluminum doesn’t have all the leaching and environmental issues (like breaking into micro plastics) that plastic does
- ‘In 2009 the EU had a recycling rate of 72% for tin and aluminum – compared to 9% of all plastic is recycled in the US]
- ‘When tin and aluminum are recycled it allows for less new metal to be extracted from their ores. This reduces the amount of energy used annually on the production of aluminum and tinplate packaging. Due to this large recycling effort the amount of CO2 created in the production process is only 1/3 of what it would be if new ore were being continually extracted’
Aluminum windows and doors:
- Aluminum is durable
- Aluminum is abundant as a resource, and endlessly recyclable
- ‘55% of world aluminium production is powered by renewable hydroelectric power’ (as opposed to fossil fuel powered production processes)
Benefits of recycling aluminum:
- Today, recycling of post-consumer aluminium products saves over 90 million tonnes of CO2 and over 100,000 GWh of electrical energy, equivalent to the annual power consumption of the Netherlands.
- [The fact that aluminum is infinitely recyclable] has led to a situation where today around 75% of the almost one billion tonnes of aluminium ever produced is still in productive use
Aluminum consumption and recycling:
- Although recycling aluminum reduces energy requirements, we should also be focussing on reducing consumption too because ‘recycled aluminum creates the demand for more virgin aluminum and more environmental destruction’
- Aluminum takes approximately ‘13,500 to 17,000 kWh per ton’ to make
- Recycling aluminum isn’t 100% eco friendly – ‘[there are] alloys that have to be removed using chemicals like chlorine; there are fumes and chemical releases that are toxic’
- One problem for the future is that there is not enough recycled aluminum to meet demand
- Aluminum mining (of bauxite) can be destructive, and then bauxite has to be shipped to another country
- ‘Aluminum has 20 percent smaller life cycle energy consumption than steel in transportation’
- In the last 40 years, energy requirements to product aluminum, and the carbon footprint, are both improving
- Aluminum is generally a green building material
- Through the recycling process it saves 95% of the energy that it would cost to produce new aluminum
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.
Other Factors To Consider
- Just as there is different types of plastic, there are different types of aluminum. Each different type of aluminum can have a different sustainability footprint (depending on how it’s processed, fabricated, etc.)
- The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)
- How long an aluminum product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint
- There are different types of aluminum products with different sustainability footprints, such as aluminum cans for soda and alcohol … or for building materials like aluminum vs plastic window frames (which have a much longer lifespan). Specifically with aluminum vs plastic frames, there can be considerations to do with insulation and energy efficiency.