Connect the Dots: Aluminum Cans

I don’t know about you but the single most effective way I have found to change people’s habits is to educate them as to what they are causing when they do something. I’ve found this to be the case with myself over and over as well, as I connect the dots and recognize what consequences my habits have. So today I am going to blatantly steal from another source (giving full credit where credit is due) and share with you something that has had a profound effect on me. Since it’s all in the name of education, I’m hoping that no one takes offense.

The excerpt below first came to my attention in a class I took about three years back. Since I first read it, I’d say that I’ve drunk from approximately four aluminum cans. Why? Because every time I look at one, I see all of the energy density that resides there. It’s a real shocker and I’ll be interested to see if anyone else has the kind of visceral response I had.

So there you have it. I’d say enjoy, but that doesn’t really seem right, so let’s just say I hope it resonates and has an impact.


A striking case study of the complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking, where they trace the origins and pathways of a can of English cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage. Bauxite is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill where a half-hour process purifies each ton of bauxite into a half ton of aluminum oxide. When enough of that is stockpiled, it is loaded on a giant ore carrier and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity. After a month-long journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.

The smelter takes two hours to turn each half ton of aluminum oxide into a quarter ton of aluminum metal, in ingots ten meters long. These are cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Sweden or Germany. There each ingot is heated to nearly nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit and rolled down to a thickness of an eighth of an inch. The resulting sheets are wrapped in ten-ton coils and transported to a warehouse, and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country, where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication. The aluminum is then sent to England, where sheets are punched and formed into cans, which are then washed, dried, painted with a base coat, and then painted again with specific product information. The cans are next lacquered, flanged (they are still topless), sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent the cola from corroding the can, and inspected.

The cans are palletized, forklifted, and warehoused until needed. They are then shipped to the bottler, where they are washed and cleaned once more, then filled with water mixed with flavored syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas. The sugar is harvested from beet fields in France and undergoes trucking, milling, refining, and shipping. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open-pit mines´┐Ża process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round-the-clock, the mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality. The caffeine is shipped from a chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.

The filled cans are sealed with an aluminum “pop-top” lid at the rate of fifteen hundred cans per minute, then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching color and promotional schemes. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old-growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the home of grizzly, wolverines, otters, and eagles. Palletized again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse, and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within three days. The consumer buys twelve ounces of the phosphate-tinged, caffeine-impregnated, caramel-flavored sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes; throwing the can away takes a second. In England, consumers discard 84 percent of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminum waste, after counting production losses, is 88 percent. The United States still gets three-fifths of its aluminum from virgin ore, at twenty times the energy intensity of recycled aluminum, and throws away enough aluminum to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.


Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialog on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll do the right thing.”


.1 months ago

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Bruce W.
Bruce Webber5 years ago

Greg, I didn't know that there was any link between processed aluminum and Alzheimers. Aluminum is one of most common minerals found on Earth, but it can't be separated unless it is smelted. Smelting is an energy intensive process, and recycling aluminum cans negates the need for it. Instead, it can be charged into melting furnaces (Melters), where natural gas-fired burners keep the temp up to 1100-1300 degrees F. A smelter (pot) consumes electricity, and plenty of it. Remelting cans makes better sense. The Alzheimer/Aluminum link involved naturally occurring aluminum. Soda and beer cans should be quite sterile, and the can stock is cleaned and dried. No chemicals are involved after it is rolled and sheared. I feel quite safe drinking from these cans, and I do recycle them. It's not hard, and it's the right thing to do. The poor people collect cans, sometimes on bicycle, often on foot. A couple garbage bags full of cans will buy a couple of Burger meals from McDonalds. Maybe some people live where everyone has a job. We're a former GM town which got shut down last year. There are no job openings and people need to live. We probably recycle close to 90% of our cans here.

Greg S.
Greg Shea5 years ago

Hello. I just found this article as I pursue the link between aluminum ingestion and Alzheimers. I do not think it a coincidence that they both beging with Al (the symbol for aluminum). Here in Canada we are more energy wasteful than anyone (per capita). Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run the average TV for nearly two hours.
This information is from ALCAN. We need to get away from plastic and aluminum use. Plastic, mostly an oil product, has issues with the liningl (BPA) and cans with aluminum. It looks like recycling in northern North America is failing miserably. Incidentally the aluminum tabs on pop/beer cans are worth, here in Canada, 2¢ each to the Kidney foundation (since they are essentially pure aluminum). Glass bottles, while they may break are essentially silicon dioxide derived from sand and will naturally break down. I think we should go back to them. Good for Japan! And what about the wonderful aspartame (Nutrasweet) in diet pops? Aaauuggh! I have two friends who acquired brain tumours and drank a lot of diet pop. A coincidence, you say? Try to find gum without aspartame. Do you know what happened with Wrigleys in Australia. Oh, and gum wrappers are foil. Is that more aluminum? That fact about aluminum waste and airplanes is truly profound and disturbing! Good luck to everyone. Greg in Victoria, BC

Kay O.
Kay O.6 years ago

I do a lot of recycling. Beautify your neighborhood~pick up those
recyclables and take them to the collection place.

Kevin W.
Kevin W.6 years ago

I don't mind who reads this but not everyone might know sometimes but if you have sensitive interiors, it is very likely that the contents of most fizzy drinks will make it worse. In my case the below itching was the affliction of the devil and after many years I eventually got the correct anasethetic ointment which helps immensely.
So basically, it is not just the tins that are bad for us but as said by others, 'Jewels' etc, the contents are just as bad in many ways.

Jewels S.
Jewels S.6 years ago

I gave up soda drinking because of the chemicals they put in them (mostly corn syrup and aspartine) but am glad now that I did so for the other reasons. Soda is not good for you period. If people want to keep killing themselves by drinking soday no one can stop them but I thank the writer for the spirit in which they wrote the article. They were just trying to spread awareness but it is amazing to see the defensive reactions. I am sensitive to wheat gluten and yeast but I love bread. The substitutes suck. It has taken me years to stop eating bread anyway. It has been devastating to my health yet I would still do it. It is a discipline (or entitlement) thing to me and something our world is in true lack of now. I have come out the other side now and am so proud of myself. I wish the feeling I have now on to others. The old saying about "your body is a temple" right on!

megan m.
megan m.6 years ago

To Tony:


As always, great article Dave. I rarely drink soda, maybe one root beer in the past two years, but my husband drinks it a little more. After I show him this article, he won't want to drink it anymore.
Now I'm going to research the processes of other commonly used products to see how I can further reduce my impact on our planet.

Sustainable Dave
Dave Chameides6 years ago

I'm a little confused by your comment. Do you mean to say that since anything you do will have an impact, you don't feel the need to try and limit that impact if you can? That doesn't make much sense to me. And while my point wasn't necessarily that you shouldn't drink soda, would that have been so horrible if it was? We may need to rethink what is "important" as times move forward and my guess is that soda won't be high on that list. Interested in your thoughts.


Lyn C.
Lyn C.6 years ago

Since I recycle, I do plan on drinking my Diet Pepsi. You don't have to give up Pepsi, just recycle your cans. :-)

Tony C.
Tony C.6 years ago

And the point of all that is. . . .? You mean for me not to drink soda? Swear off using all aluminum products forever? Feel guilty every time I pop open a pepsi? The hard fact is that as long as I'm drawing breath, I'll have an impact on my surroundings. That's just the way it is.