SUNY New Paltz is reducing plastic consumption by switching to aluminum canned beverages wherever possible, in a move sustainability advocates expect to improve recycling rates and reduce the upstream and downstream impacts of plastic on people and the natural world.
The change follows negotiations between Campus Auxiliary Services (CAS), which contracts on behalf of the College for beverages distributed through vending machines and dining services, and Coca-Cola, the College’s current beverage vendor. The new contract took effect in fall 2020.
Now, whenever a beverage is available in an aluminum can, it is offered only in an aluminum can. Only a few limited plastic-only beverages (primarily sports drinks and iced teas) will be sold on campus.
The new contract also marks the first time that packaged water will be sold on campus since 2015, when the College discontinued bottled water sales in favor of reusable containers and bottle filling stations. Water will now be sold in cans, complementing the continued use of the successful refilling model.
As in that 2015 renegotiation, students were again a driving force in the decision to switch from bottles to cans. The CAS Board of Directors includes student members and regularly invites student groups to attend meetings, share feedback and voice concerns.
In this case, student Sustainability Ambassadors launched a Beyond Plastics initiative in 2019, aimed at reducing single-use plastics on campus. As part of that effort, these students worked with CAS to explore non-plastic options for vending of beverages.
“We did the research and knew what we wanted to talk about – how bad plastic is for your body and for Earth, and why it’s important to set an example for others to follow,” said Tevin Green ’20 (Business Analytics; Management), a Sustainability Ambassador who worked on the Beyond Plastics implementation team. “It paid off – Sodexo and the administration really liked what we had to say. When I look back on what we were able to do, it feels good to see the progress we’ve made so far.”
The environmental advantages of this change derive primarily from the more sustainable ways in which aluminum containers are created and recycled. The Sustainability Ambassadors cited the following research:
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, 50% of aluminum cans were recycled, whereas only 27% of PET (plastic) bottles and jars were recycled, suggesting Americans are more likely to recycle aluminum than plastic
- 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
The shift to aluminum cans reflects New Paltz’s commitment to the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, as plastic causes serious health, environmental, social, and climate problems at every step of its lifecycle.
Interested in learning more? The Office of Campus Sustainability has published a Case Study about the transition from plastic to aluminum containers, and you can also get in touch with Lisa Mitten, campus sustainability coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow our work on Instagram @sustainablenewpaltz.