Sunday, 11 January 2015

The story of a canned drink

It is customary to drink beer, Coke, lemonade etc. from an aluminium can. Given the convenience of storing and transporting the drink around this is not surprising (although personally I have a tendency to snap off the ring pull, leaving the can sealed). However, there is a price to pay for this convenience when one considers the enormous amount of energy and environmental destruction that goes into the production of a pop-top alumimium can.

Womak and Jones in their book Lean Thinking tracked down the manufacture of a can of English cola (presumably fairly typical of most canned drinks. The data is from the 1993 book but the overall picture is still essentially the same.)

  1. Bauxite ore is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill.
  2. At the mill each ton of bauxite is purified to half a ton of aluminium oxide in half an hour.
  3. The Al oxide is loaded onto an ore carrier bound for roller mills in Scandinavia.
  4. In Sweden or Norway the Al oxide is taken to a smelting plant. Each half ton is smelted down to one quarter ton of aluminium, which is converted into 10 metre ingots.
  5. Each ingot is heated to 480 deg C and rolled down to a sheet 30 mm thick. The sheets are wrapped in 10 ton coils and transported to a warehouse.
  6. The coils are transported to another country for rolling down to 3 mm sheets.
  7. The Al sheets are sent to England for punching and forming into cans.
  8. The cans are washed, dried, and base painted. Product information is then painted on.
  9. The cans are lacquered, flanged, sprayed inside with protective coating, loaded onto pallets, forklifted and warehoused.
  10. They are then shipped to a bottler where they are washed and cleaned again.
  11. After filling with cola pop-top lids are added at the rate of 1500 cans per minute.
  12. The cans are inserted into cardboard cartons made of forest pulp originating in some other part of the world (e.g. Siberia or British Columbia).
  13. The cartons are shipped to a distribution warehouse and finally to the supermarket.
This leaves out the production and transport of the drink itself. In the case of the English cola drink this involves mining phosphates from deep open pit mines in Idaho, USA; refining this to food grade; and shipping caffeine from chemical plants abroad to a syrup manufacturer in England.

All these production and transportation steps use up energy, sometimes huge amounts – e.g. the conversion of the mined phosphate to food grade uses electricity at the same rate as a town of 100,00 people. The metal used also defies belief. Even after allowing for recycling the USA ‘throws away enough aluminium to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.’ Natural capitalism by Hawken et al, 1999.

Other examples from Hawken et al :
  • Semiconductor chips generate 100,000 x their weight in waste.
  • A laptop computer produces nearly 4000 x its weight in waste.
  • 1 quart of Florida orange juice requires 2 quarts of gasoline and 1000 quarts of water to produce it.
Should we feel guilty when our lifestyle is so dependent on these things?  Partly, but we are trapped in a greed-driven multinational system which is kept afloat by crazy accounting which ignores the real world. To change that system, one which ultimately must lead to war, is our only option. Either from top down or bottom up, or both at the same time, it has to change; and that means people themselves have to change both individually and collectively, and at all levels of society.

As one who believes in our Creator I think this can only only happen by getting closer to the one who created us.  Reason is of paramount importance; but reason alone is not enough, as was learned at the cost of millions of lives and decades of misery by the disciples of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong.
Feedback welcome.