Plastic Alternative

Aluminium cans to replace plastic bottles in Japan

In a move towards a more sustainable economy, Japanese beverage vendors are switching out plastic bottles for aluminium cans.

A select number of Japanese brands now offer drinks packaged in aluminium cans instead of plastic bottles. The decision is framed as a counteractive measure in the fight against marine plastic pollution.

According to the WWF, each year, 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans. 90% of seabirds have microplastics in their stomachs. Yet plastic remains the world’s packaging material of choice due to its low price point as well as its versatility when it comes to functionality. Globally, around 350 million tonnes are produced in packaging applications.

But with environmental consciousness increasingly guiding consumer choices and national plastic bans proliferating as of late, brands are starting to invest in sustainable technologies and products.

Ryohin Keikaku Co, a group of independently managed Japanese stores that also operates beverage vendor Muji, has sold all 12 teas and soft drinks included in the brand’s product portfolio in aluminium cans instead of plastic bottles since April of this year. The decision came after data revealed that the rate of ‘horizontal recycling’, which sees material from a product reused to render a comparable product, is substantially higher for aluminium cans than for plastic bottles.

According to the Japan Aluminium Association and the Council for PET Bottle Recycling, the horizontal recycling rate for aluminium cans is 71% while the horizontal recycling rate for plastic bottles is 24,3%.

For drinks, aluminium cans are the better alternative when it comes to shelf life.

The opacity of said cans prevents the deterioration of its contents via light exposure. Ryohin Keikaku partly introduced aluminium cans to their operation to cut down on wasted drinks. The retailer claimed that the switch to aluminium cans extended expiry dates by 90-270 days.

Aluminium cans are arguably more recyclable, as the PET recycling loop is not infinite-after multiple recycling bouts, the plastic irrevocably degrades to the point that it can’t be reused.

Earlier this year, Dydo Group Holdings Inc, another prominent Japan-based beverage producer, similarly swapped out its plastic bottles for cans in six instances, the products in question including coffee and sports drinks.

According to Yoshihiko Kimura, the head of the Japan Aluminium Association, “aluminium is gaining momentum”.

Since July, the group has been active in informing the public about the benefits of using aluminium for packaging and now plans to hold an art contest incorporating aluminium cans later this year in a move to raise further awareness on the subject.

The trend of using aluminium in favour of plastic in packaging applications has also gained traction globally. Most prominently, at the latest G7 Summit this past June in Cornwall, water was supplied in aluminium cans while in April, consumer goods giant Unilever pledged to sell shampoo in aluminium bottles in the US.

Currently, aluminium is one of the most recycled materials in the world.

Yet the material has been criticised for its environmental impact as its production process is very energy intensive. The production cost also renders wide-spread application difficult.

With the demand for recycled PET continuously rising, especially within a European context, and the consumption of aluminium based packaging set to decline over the next 10 years, according to a study conducted by energy, chemicals and metals research and consultancy business Wood Mackenzie, it’s clear that aluminium on its own won’t solve the plastic crisis.

Yet Japanese brands producing canned drinks may not be off to a bad start.

The self-same WoodMac report predicts a rise in demand for aluminium based packaging in select South East Asian emerging markets.

As such, a monitoring of the Japanese market over time may prove beneficial to the global packaging industry.