In order to do so, we need aluminum to be the best product it can be.

Some folks might think it’s a sad day for our college football team when the talk of the town is about the new stadium beverage cup. Then again, this isn’t just any old cup—it’s a shiny, new aluminum cup, and it was all the rage in Boulder, Colo., this past fall where it debuted at the football stadium as a replacement for traditional single-use plastic cups.

The timing of the cup launch was no accident: Images of sea turtles choking on plastic and beaches covered with more plastic than sand are driving a visceral reaction to plastic. In response, an “anything but plastic” movement has erupted around the globe. As people search for instant alternatives to plastic, the new aluminum cup has found a welcoming audience. And yet, everywhere I go, from national conferences to local coffee shops, the conversation about the cup follows the same pattern: after talking about the benefits of aluminum, the conversation inevitably hits an awkward silence before someone asks the question that we’re all wondering: “But is it really better than plastic?”

Unfortunately, simply swapping out single-use plastics for another single-use alternative, whether it is aluminum, paper or compostable bioplastics, doesn’t just miraculously solve the problem. Before we replace one product with another or decide what is the best choice for the environment, we need to consider the data behind how our products are created, or we risk simply trading one environmental disaster for another. This also includes examining our assumptions of when single-use products are needed or can be replaced with reusables. 

Let’s look first at where aluminum has the edge on plastics (see charts below for more details): 

  • It can be infinitely recyclable.
  • It has a higher recycling rate.
  • It is made with more recycled content (on average).
  • It is one of the most valuable commodities in the recycling stream.
  • It can reduce contamination in recycling and composting because it’s more easily recognizable as recyclable, as opposed to the confusion about where to sort either traditional plastic cups or compostable, “look alike” polylactic acid (PLA) plastic cups.
Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers InstituteCan We Love the Aluminum Cup?