Issues & Insights

Ditching Plastic For Aluminum Is Worse For The Planet 

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Actor Jason Momoa is using the fame he garnered as an on-screen merman to push Hollywood to stop using plastic bottles and start using canned water.

Momoa, who starred in Aquaman, announced a partnership that will fully stock Hollywood greenrooms and movie sets with canned water instead of plastic bottled water. The actor said the partnership will help the “entertainment industry take meaningful steps toward sustainability.” 

He’s not the only one looking to make cans a green alternative to bottles. Live Nation, which operates concert venues around the country, announced it will also be switching to aluminum cans from plastic bottles in order to be greener. 

Here’s an inconvenient truth: A large-scale switch to aluminum is worse for the planet. In fact, the only situation that would improve by Americans switching to aluminum is Momoa’s financial situation — he owns the canned water company. 

It takes more than twice as much greenhouse gas emissions to create an aluminum can as it does to create a plastic bottle. Not only does aluminum generate a lot of carbon dioxide in the process of harvesting bauxite — the ore used in aluminum production — it also releases perfluorocarbon (PFC) emissions in the smelting process when aluminum oxide is mixed with salt and zapped with an electric current to separate out the aluminum. PFC’s are 9,200 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Bauxite mining is incredibly harmful to nearby communities. Bauxite is dug up from open-face mines that kick up thick red dust that kills nearby vegetation and pollutes local rivers. Those who live near the mines — which are mostly located in Malaysia and Indonesia — are left with serious diseases including cancers from inhaling the red dust.

A significant portion of the aluminum market is owned by China — a country not known for its environmental standards. And as the U.S. continues to cut carbon emissions, China is opening hundreds of coal-burning plants. Nearly a quarter of the air pollution in Los Angeles can be traced back to China. 

Can’t aluminum be recycled? Yes — but most of it isn’t. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 35% of the aluminum used in the United States is recycled. Plastic bottles are recycled at a similar rate. 

Despite celebrities scrambling to appear green, most of our environmental problems actually start thousands of miles from Hollywood. According to one study, less than 1% of the mismanaged trash in the ocean is from the U.S. More than 90% of ocean trash can be traced back to ten rivers in Africa and Asia. And according to National Geographic, much of the harmful plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is abandoned fishing gear, not straws or bottles. Wasting time trading out bottles for cans in dressing rooms in Hollywood, won’t even make a fractional dent in eliminating ocean pollution. 

As much as 40% of the pollution in the ocean is non-plastic trash like glass, cigarette butts, and cans. 

Aluminum cans don’t fare much better on land, either. A study from Keep America Beautiful found that aluminum cans are littered five times more often than plastic water bottles.

Momoa is either ignorant of aluminum’s dirty secrets or he is willfully ignoring the truth to benefit his bottom line. Either way, it’s a good reminder not to trust random actors to be your environmental guide or conscience. 

Will Coggin is the managing director of the Center for Accountability in Science. 

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2 comments

  • “the only situation that would improve by Americans switching to aluminum is Momoa’s financial situation — he owns the canned water company.”

    That line says it all. Old “bottom line” capitalism reigns supreme, despite all the phony talk. Following in the self-promotional footsteps of P.T. Barnum. Not all bad, but unfortunately aluminum is one of the most energy-intensive industries on the planet. The better solution for planet Earth is reusable jugs or thermoses filled with local tap water (which can be filtered at the tap to taste). Film crews could carry personal reusable collapsible drinking cups, filled at the spigot. But Hollywood vanity, “chic”, macho or whatever seems to require holding a “throwaway” container of some sort. In a prior era, holding or puffing a tobacco item was de rigueur. Following fashion, whether tobacco or “throwaway” containers.

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