All About Beverage Container Waste
Environmental Consequences of Beverage Container Waste
Americans waste (landfill, litter, and incinerate) about 425 beverage containers per capita per year--twice as many as we recycle.
Environmental impacts of this wasting include:
- Energy consumption equivalent to 36 million barrels of crude oil per year
- Annual generation of 4.5 million tons of greenhouse gases
- Emission of a host of toxics to the air and water
- Damage to wildlife habitat due to mining, drilling, and building hydroelectric dams
- Landfilling and littering of more than 135 beverage cans and bottles each year.
When beverage containers are wasted, they must be replaced with new bottles and cans made from virgin materials. Production using virgin (primary) materials is more energy-intensive than production using recycled (secondary) feedstock, and it generates more pollutants of all kinds: airborne emissions, toxic liquid effluents, and solid wastes from mining and industrial processing, for example.
The environmental effects of this “replacement production” are particularly pronounced for aluminum cans (See CRI's Trashed Cans report). Primary aluminum production entails strip mining bauxite ore, refining it into alumina using fuel oil and other chemical inputs, transporting it vast distances, and smelting it into aluminum ingot using large quantities of electricity. New hydroelectric dams are often built to produce electricity for aluminum smelters, damaging river ecosystems and displacing indigenous peoples in many regions of the world.
The manufacturing processes for PET and HDPE plastic bottles are not as environmentally egregious as aluminum can production, but they are still energy consumptive and polluting, relying on natural gas and petroleum derivatives. To read more about the effects of making plastics, click here.
Taken together, the energy used to replace the 134 billion beverage containers wasted in 2005 was equivalent to 50 million barrels of crude oil. This is enough to supply the total residential energy needs of about 2 million American households for a year.
An estimated 11.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions were also produced in the process of replacing the 153 billion bottles and cans not recycled in 2010, as the table shows.
While the aluminum industry has come a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process itself, the worldwide quantity of aluminum-related greenhouse gases has continued to rise. This is due in large part to the greenhouse gas impacts of increased total aluminum demand, and thus increased electricity generation--from coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric dams.
Toxics are also released into the soil and water when bauxite or is mined and processed for refining into alumina. For every ton of aluminum produced, about 5 tons of caustic red mud wastes are produced, along with a host of other pollutants , including NOx and SOx (contributors to acid rain and smog), toxic fluorides and volatile hydrocarbons, and other industrial effluents.
Beverage containers typically comprise 40% to 60% of roadside litter in non-deposit states. In a 1999 statewide study, the Solid Waste Coordinators of Kentucky found that beverage containers and closures made up 52% of roadside litter, as the below figure shows. The same study found that beverage container material made up 42% of litter in state waterways, and an average of 49% of litter at all sites. The Virginia Shenandoah Valley Audubon Society, a participant in the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program, carefully recorded the litter they picked up several times a year from 1990 to 1998. They found that beverage containers accounted for 69% of litter collected on their adopted highways over the 9-year period.
Beverage container litter can be dangerous to people and animals.
People stepping on broken glass beer bottles can sustain deep cuts. Soon after Massachusetts enacted its deposit law in 1983, doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston found a 60% decrease in glass-related lacerations that required stitches. 
Livestock can be maimed or even killed by beverage container litter, either by stepping on broken cans and glass bottles, or by ingesting sharp pieces of containers that end up in their feed. This happens when a farm combine working along a roadside inadvertently “harvests” littered bottles and cans that have been tossed out of car windows.
Wildlife are also susceptible to broken glass injuries, and marine birds in particular are prone to mistake littered plastic bottle caps as food. Unable to digest or excrete them, the birds gradually starve to death.
1. Douglas M. Baker, MK; Sally E. Moore; and Paul H. Wise, MD, PhD, MPH. “The Impact of ‘Bottle Bill’ Legislation on the Incidence of Lacerations in Childhood,” American Journal of Public Health, October 1986.