On August 20 San Francisco airport banned single-use plastic water bottles; these bottles can no longer be sold in airport concessions, vending machines, or lounges. So how do you consume water at SFO? I was traveling through the airport a few weeks after the policy went into effect and purchased water in an aluminum can for the first time in my life (see photo). I am not entirely sure how I feel about replacing plastic with aluminum; both seem a bit wasteful.
The policy was ostensibly put in place to reduce the amount of plastic which winds up in our oceans and wreaks untold havoc on the marine ecosystem. Apparently, worldwide less than 25% of plastic bottles are recycled, and the market for recycled plastic continues to shrink. So, moving away from plastic bottles seems like a laudable goal and since drinking water from an aluminum can doesn’t seem particularly strange, I am willing to go along with it; but I wonder if we are just swapping one problem for another?
If you believe the marketing message on the back of the aluminum can I bought at SFO, aluminum is “infinitely recyclable” and more often recycled than plastic, glass or paper cartons. While this may be true, I know that an exorbitant amount of energy is required to make aluminum in the first place. And I assume a decent amount of energy and associated environmental degradation is required to collect, transport, meltdown and reconstitute recycled aluminum back into cans over and over again. So perhaps going from plastic bottles to aluminum is somewhat analogous to going from coal-fired plants to natural gas. It is an improvement in terms of environmental impact but not quite as good as alternatives like solar and wind. So, what else could we do?
I can think of two improvements to aluminum water bottles, both of which I see SFO trying to encourage. The first is encourage citizens to bring their own bottles and refill at well-marked “water stations”. While I think this is the best possible solution; unfortunately getting humans (particularly Americans) to all modify their behavior in this way is pretty close to impossible. The only way to do it would be to outright ban bottled water and “force” people to either drink from a fountain or bring a bottle with them. Given this isn’t going to happen, the next best option I can think of is to exclusively offer water–and other items such as straws—in compostable packaging. Composting seems to be the most environmentally friendly method available to deal with the mountains of waste we humans produce. I have consciously tried to compost as much as possible at home and have previously written about this matter.