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Aluminum is replacing plastic at the Super Bowl

But there could be a better option

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Fifty thousand aluminum cups will replace plastic containers for beer and liquor at the Super Bowl this Sunday as the Hard Rock Stadium tries to go green. (PepsiCo will also serve its drinks in aluminum.) It’s not clear how much better the switch is for the environment, though — and the best option is probably to ditch these single-use cups altogether.

The Welford Road Stadium in the UK, home of the Leicester Tigers, started using reusable cups in 2019 to cut down its waste. Now, the 18,000 pints it sells each game can be used again and again instead of getting thrown out each time.

Aluminum is trending for beverage containers as a way to stop plastic pollution from clogging up oceans. It’s easier to recycle than plastic and can be rehashed almost infinitely. The change is also a reaction to plastic waste: reports of whales washing up with bellies stuffed with bottles and bags have gotten people really pissed about plastic pollution. But it’s not clear how much better aluminum is than plastic — or if it’s even better at all, since new aluminum takes more energy to make than new plastic. On the other hand, reusable containers are generally more sustainable than anything that’s single use, whether they’re made of plastic or aluminum.

“In terms of favoring one material over another, if they’re both single use, [an aluminum cup] might not have benefits other than it being not plastic,” says Troy Hottle, a senior environmental sustainability and life cycle analyst at the Eastern Research Group, a consulting firm.

A spokesperson for Virgin aluminum takes more energy to make than virgin plastic, but recycling significantly cuts that down. So from an energy standpoint, the aluminum containers need to be made out of recycled content and be recycled again in order to be better than plastic. According to the company making the aluminum cups, Ball Corporation, its new containers will be made of the same materials as soda cans — which on average contain about 70 percent recycled content.

Image: Matthew Noel for Centerplate

Hard Rock’s catering partner, Centerplate, hasn’t completely ruled out moving to reusable cups in the future, says Centerplate spokesperson Paul Pettas. “We are going to streamline this and figure out ways to make this an improved program, so I would say that we are definitely looking at all options,” he says. Centerplate’s parent company, Sodexo, could roll out some of the improvements when it caters the Summer Olympics this year, according to Pettas.

The switch to aluminum is still a welcome change to the environmental group Ocean Conservancy, which is partnering with the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee in its efforts to go green. Since the aluminum cups at this year’s Super Bowl will be sturdier than plastic and emblazoned with the event logo, game-goers could choose to reuse them instead of tossing them. George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, hopes fans might bring the new aluminum cups home with them as a keepsake, which he says, “is the best way to keep them out of the ocean.”

During last year’s Super Bowl, the NFL set out to send almost nothing from the game to landfills. It succeeded in meeting its goal of composting, reusing, or recycling 91 percent of all the trash fans left behind that day.