John Heylin, who runs the Nor Cal Beer Guide, has an interesting article he posted today about the untold costs of aluminum cans, entitled Why Craft Breweries Should Stop Using Cans. In it, his main argument is that while cans have benefits once they’re made, that the process of creating aluminum cans have significant costs to the environment from the mining and processing of them. I hadn’t ever thought about it from that angle, and it’s certainly worth looking into further. He concludes with this.
The bottom line is this: aluminum is in no way environmentally friendly. Sure, after it is ripped from the Earth, smelted, shipped, refined, and made into a product it is easily recyclable and very light weight, but the cost is far too great. The cost to the environment and to the people living around these areas is just too much. Clean aluminum is like the myth of clean coal, it’s a total lie.
So what about glass? Heylin remarks that “at least glass comes from sand, is reusable, and when thrown away goes back to sand. Aluminum? It lasts forever.” I’m assuming, though, that taking sand and turning it into glass also has environmental costs associated with it, though what they are I don’t know off the top of my head.
In the end, I really don’t know how to balance which does the greater harm or is gentler on the planet. It seems no matter what we choose, some harm is done. I’m certainly not willing to give up packaged beer while so many other manufactured goods, and for that matter entire industries, are doing far worse damage. I guess today I’ll stick with draft beer. But wait, isn’t that one big aluminum can? Damn. Okay, I guess I’ll search out a wooden cask. Hold up, isn’t that chopping down forests for the wood? In the Joe Jackson song Cancer, a line in the chorus is “everything gives you cancer” and at one point in the song just after singing that line, a piano riff begins and Jackson yells out, “hey, don’t play that piano.” And in a sense, I guess my point is, like the song, that everything causes some harm and choices have to be made. Every brewery is built with mined metal, industrial processing plants, smelting, iron and steel, and goodness knows what else.
Should we try to make responsible choices? Of course. But in a world where every decision has consequences, and usually bad ones, even Thomas Hobson might have trouble making a choice.
Still, it’s always good to consider and rethink our assumptions on a regular basis. Any day that makes us think is a good day, in my opinion, at least, even if it’s driving me to drink.