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Case Study: From Plastic Bottles to Aluminum Cans

Background & History

Since signing onto Second Nature’s Carbon Commitment in 2008, SUNY New Paltz has been a leading higher education institution in adopting sustainable practices.  In terms of moving beyond plastics, in 2015, the campus discontinued the use of plastic bags and the sale of bottled water.  To respond to these changes, the campus began offering only paper bags in retail stores, installed over 35 bottle filling stations, and retrofitted over 25 existing water fountains with “gooseneck” bottle fillers.  Many campus departments began giving away reusable water bottles to students upon their arrival to campus while the Office of Campus Sustainability gave away free reusable, collapsible bags and other reusable items.  In the fall of 2019, student Sustainability Ambassadors from the Office of Campus Sustainability’s Sustainability Program Implementation Team decided to focus their efforts on reducing single-use plastics on campus and launched a Beyond Plastics Initiative with membership from students, faculty, and staff across the campus community.

The Change: From Plastic Bottles to Aluminum Cans

In the fall of 2020, Campus Auxiliary Services (CAS), which contracts on behalf of SUNY New Paltz for beverages to be distributed through vending machines and the dining services contractor, negotiated with the current beverage vendor, Coca-Cola, to switch from offering beverages mostly in plastic bottles to beverages mostly aluminum cans.  Now, whenever a beverage is available in an aluminum can, it is offered only in an aluminum can.  CAS returned the sale of packaged water to campus, which is now offered in cans.

Beverage Offerings in Aluminum Cans

The following Coca-Cola products were previously offered in plastic bottles and are now only offered in aluminum cans at SUNY New Paltz:

  • Coke
  • Diet Coke
  • Coke Zero
  • Sprite
  • Sprite Zero
  • Dr Pepper
  • Diet Dr Pepper
  • Fanta Orange
  • Seagram's Ginger Ale
  • AHA - Orange Grapefruit
  • AHA - Lime Watermelon
  • AHA - Blueberry Pomegranate
  • Dasani Water

 The following Coca-Cola products were previously offered only in cans and continue to be offered only in cans:

  • Monster sports drinks

 The following products are still offered in plastic bottles:

  • Sports drinks
  • Smartwater (sparkling waters only)
  • Iced tea products

Why We Did It

SUNY New Paltz took this step because:

  • Global Goal #3: Good Health and Well-Being
      • It is relatively healthier to drink a smaller, 12-oz aluminum can of sugary soda than a larger 20-oz plastic bottle of sugary soda.
      • When we consume food and drink from single-use plastic containers, we are exposed to chemicals connected to the public health crisis of our time, including ADD/ADHD, obesity, and cancer.
  • Global Goals #10: Reduced Inequalities - Plastic production and plastic pollution are environmental and social justice issues.
    • Plastic production damages local communities where plastic is made with toxic air and water pollution.
    • Fossil fuel companies are locating new and expanded plastic production facilities near existing fossil fuel infrastructure, which includes targeting the Gulf Coast, the Ohio River Valley, Appalachia, and other frontline and fenceline environmental justice communities.  These plastic industrial sites have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color.
  • Global Goal #12: Responsible Consumption & Production:
      • Aluminum cans are more likely to be recycled than plastic bottles.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, 50% of aluminum cans are recycled, whereas only 27% of PET (plastic) bottles and jars are recycled.
      • Aluminum cans are made from mostly recycled aluminum (70% of an aluminum Coca-Cola can is made from recycled content), whereas plastic beverage bottles are made from virgin materials (not recycled materials) derived from fossil fuels
      • Aluminum cans are recycled into aluminum cans supporting circular, closed-loop manufacturing whereas plastic bottles are “downcycled” into other materials such as polyester clothing, carpeting, decking material, etc., that are most likely never recycled again
  • Global Goal #13: Climate Action
      • Most plastics are made from virgin (not recycled) materials created from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, including an oversupply of fracked gas, which is leading to a global boom in new plastic production.  Plastic production fuels the climate crisis through the release of greenhouse gases.
  • Global Goal #14 Life Below Water and #15 Life on Land
    • Plastics and microplastics harm wildlife, land, rivers, lakes, shorelines, and oceans.

What It Took: Timing

Near the end of a multi-year beverage-vending contract, the Office of Campus Sustainability at SUNY New Paltz realized that the time of contract negotiations would be an opportunity to integrate sustainable procurement into the new beverage contract.  Campus Sustainability Coordinator Lisa Mitten and a team of Sustainability Ambassadors, led by student Shahnoor Khan (‘20), investigated the pros and cons of switching from plastic bottles to aluminum cans and ultimately decided that this would be a more sustainable direction to head.

What It Took: Partnerships, Education & Engagement

These changes were made after a year-long sustained education and campus engagement effort during the 2019-2020 academic year between the Sustainability Ambassadors of the Office of Campus Sustainability, Campus Auxiliary Services Executive Director Steve Deutsch, and Sodexo General Manager Kevin Dicey.  

The educational highlight of the year was an engaging, inspiring lecture by Judith Enck of Beyond Plastics before a packed audience of approximately 250 campus community members that took place in early March of 2020, which was then followed by an Open Forum on the Future of Single-Use Plastics at SUNY New Paltz, co-facilitated by student Sustainability Ambassadors Shahnoor Khan (‘20) and Belle Steed (‘20).

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How did students respond to the switch to mostly aluminum cans?

A: There hasn’t really been any feedback, negative or positive.  Note that this program was implemented during the middle of the fall 2020 semester during the COVID pandemic when fewer students were living and studying on campus, so fewer students were on campus to react to the changes.  

Q: How has this change impacted the price of beverages?

A: The overall cost per oz of beverage has increased, however, the total cost of beverages have decreased because there’s less volume of beverage in an aluminum can than a plastic bottle.  The cost of one beverage has decreased from $2.25 for one plastic bottle to $1.49 for one aluminum can.  

Q: How did students respond to the return of packaged water in cans to campus?

We haven’t received any communications from students about the return of the sale of water.  General Manager Kevin Dicey reports that students are happy that we have water for sale, because we haven’t had water for sale since 2015.  

Q: How has the switch from plastic bottles to aluminum cans impacted revenue that the beverage contractor

A: Each year, Campus Auxiliary Services is receiving approximately 25% less in terms of remuneration from our beverage vendor to implement aluminum cans.  The profit margin on a 20-oz plastic bottle is much greater than the profit margin on a 12-oz can.

Q: How does this switch impact student health and well-being?

A: If a student or campus community member is going to indulge in a sugary soft drink, it is healthier to drink a 12-oz can of soda than a 20-oz plastic bottle of soda.  Overconsumption of sugary soft drinks is one of the causes of obesity in the United States.  Also, now the healthiest option - water - is now back on campus for sale.

 

Interested in learning more?  

 

Feel free to contact:

Lisa Mitten, Campus Sustainability Coordinator, SUNY New Paltz, mittenl@newpaltz.edu, 845-257-3325

Steve Deutsch, Executive Director, Campus Auxiliary Services, deutschs@newpaltz.edu, 845-257-3371 

Kevin Dicey, General Manager, Sodexo, kevin.dicey@sodexo.edu, 845-257-3353

Members of the press should contact:

Chrissie Williams, Assistant Director of Media Relations, SUNY New Paltz, williamc@newpaltz.edu, 845-257-3274