aluminum can

Is Aluminum Better Than Plastic? The Showdown [2024]

As we become more environmentally aware, we look for sustainable materials to replace plastic. One key contester in this discussion is aluminum.

Aluminum has a rich history, dating back centuries and is used in various industries. The material is gaining more and more traction as a sustainable alternative.

The decision between aluminum and plastic is not always straight forward though.

Both materials have their own set of advantages and drawbacks. It is essential to consider various factors before making a choice

In this article, we'll explore the characteristics of both materials.

Finally, we'll answer the question: Is aluminum better than plastic?


The Rise of Aluminum

Aluminum's journey began with its discovery in the 19th century, following advancements in chemistry and electricity.

The metal quickly transitioned from being a precious metal to a widely used material.

It got adapted in various industries, including aviation, shipbuilding, automotive, and civil engineering.

The discovery of the "Hall-Héroult" process in 1886 revolutionized aluminum production further. The so-called smelting process marked the transition from precious metal to industrial commodity.

This transition also set a new stage in the evolution of aluminum prices. With easier production and increasing supply, aluminum gained broad acceptance.

One of the first success stories was the construction of the iconic Empire State Building in 1931. Aluminum played a significant role during the build, which caused its widespread use in construction.


empire state building


In 1959, Coors conducted research about a beverage container that "[...] consumers could one, recycle, and two, would still keep the beer in good flavor for longer periods of time,"

The famous beer can was born.

From these two examples alone, you can see that aluminum is an incredibly versatile material. But let's dive into the reasons for Aluminum's success one by one.


1. Versatility

iphone aluminum


Aluminum is easy to process and is robust in different shapes and sizes.

That makes aluminum incredibly adaptable to any use imaginable. From packaging to construction.

If you walk through daily life, you'll find aluminum in many products, from tiny wires and electronic components to massive builds like escalators, and of course various food packaging.


2. Durability

Aluminum products are known for their durability. They withstand harsh conditions and external influences like weather or corrosion.

That's why many kitchen appliances and outdoor products use aluminum.

It is also resistant to fire and impact.


3. Low Weight

Aluminum is a very lightweight material. 

The average 500ml aluminum can weighs around 15 grams, compared to 19 grams for plastic and 300 grams for a glass bottle. 

This low weight, paired with stability and weather resistance is a huge advantage for transport and storage. 


4. Recyclability

aluminum cans


Littered aluminum takes 250 years to decompose. So why is it still a sustainable material?

The main reason: it is the most recycled material in existence.  

The advantage of aluminum against other materials like plastic is that aluminum is infinitely recyclable without losing quality.

In fact, estimates show that 75% of aluminum ever made is still in use today. 

While recycling should be the last resort after reducing waste and reusing what you can, aluminum is a promising contestant to enable a truly circular economy.

Compared to plastic and even glass, aluminum is easier to sort, and does not lose quality if it's recycled.

Another great effect of recycling aluminum is that it saves 90% of the energy needed to produce new aluminum.

That resolves the high carbon impact as one of the biggest downsides of aluminum.

It is estimated that an aluminum can produces around twice the carbon as a plastic bottle.

While this is still an issue, recycled aluminum and clean energy used in production can significantly cut that concern. 


5. Food Safety

aluminum pots


Aluminum is very popular in the kitchen, because it is lightweight, conducts heat well, and is comparably cheap to produce and buy.

That also means our food is exposed to aluminum and there is a risk that small amounts of aluminum are ingested.

In fact, it is estimated that we ingest around 10 milligrams of aluminum daily from food.

The good news: the World Health Organization estimates that it is safe to consume up to 50 milligrams of aluminum without concern. It will just leave your rear end how it came in at the front.

While some studies tried to link high amounts of aluminum to Alzheimer's disease, luckily that link never got proven.



Aluminum vs Plastic: The Showdown

aluminum vs plastic
So let's have our adversaries face each other. We know that's why you're here!
Environment: Our first category is a close match. Aluminum is often celebrated as the savior for all plastic problems, but it does not come without its downsides. 
Aluminum cans are among the most littered items in the world and aluminum takes 250 years to decompose. That leaves its mark and cannot be ignored.
But the good news is that aluminum beats plastic big time when it comes to collecting and recycling the material. Aluminum cans for example have on average 68% recycled material compared to 3% for plastic bottles.
Aluminum is also infinitely recyclable, which means that it can be recycled over and over again without losing quality. That makes it one of the main materials relevant for a circular economy.
Usability: Another close round with good punches on both sides. Aluminum is durable and reusable many years and it resists oxidation, corrosion, and wear down. Plastic as well is durable, but it degrades more easily over time. Plastic is also not heat resistant, which limits its use in the kitchen.
Cost & Availability: One of the key reasons for our plastic flood is that plastic is super cheap to produce. It is widely available and easy to package. That's why companies love packaging everything in in plastic, especially for single-use items. 
Unfortunately this point still goes to plastic. The cheap price will make it hard to widely replace plastic packaging with aluminum in the short term. 
Health: Our final round has a clear winner. Aluminum has shown to be safe for food preparation and storage and it poses significantly fewer risks than plastic. There is a weak linkage between high amounts aluminum consumption and Alzheimer's disease, but that was never proven and would involve insane levels of chewing aluminum. Compared to the toxic chemicals and microplastics in plastic, aluminum clearly throws the better punches.


The battle between aluminum and plastic is a close one. We saw that there are many good reasons for the success of aluminum, and it has its place in the fight for a greener planet.

While aluminum has a higher initial carbon impact, it promises to be an important material for a circular economy, because of its great recyclability.

Replacing some of our plastic products with aluminum can be a sustainable and healthy choice.

But as always, we should remember to pair this with conscious consumption and reusing what we have already. 



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