To the chagrin of many, the liquid lifeblood of parched persons across the globe isn't skim milk, fruit juice, or even water. Welcome to soda—pop, soda pop, soft drinks, coke, or what have you—an elixir concocted from sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, caffeine, and other additives. The not so refreshing truth: in 2001 Americans spent over $60 billion on the stuff and consumed an average of 53 gallons of it per person that same year, making it a legitimate dietary staple and a source of significant waste.
Massively popular soda is embedded in the global cultural consciousness and shows no signs of going flat. Fortunately, there are ways to continue enjoying a can, cup, or bottle of cold, fizzy goodness while minding the earth and your health.
Can and bottle production
Aside from the taste debate (Do cans or PET bottles make for better-tasting soda?) there are also ecological considerations to ponder. Both aluminum cans and plastic bottles have their environmental benefits and drawbacks.
The process of converting bauxite (the source of aluminum that makes up 8 percent of the earth's crust) into aluminum is an energy-consuming one—requiring roughly 7.5 kilowatt hours for each pound of virgin aluminum. Open-cast mining of bauxite also leads to deforestation and destruction of ecosystems. On the plus side, aluminum is 100 percent recyclable, and creating new cans from old ones requires only 5 percent of the energy needed to produce virgin aluminum. In the United States, around 35 percent of aluminum products contain recycled aluminum.
Like aluminum, PET is composed from a natural source, oil-derived petroleum. Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource whose extraction and production has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems, and contributes to global warming. However, in terms of overall detrimental eco-impact, the aluminum can trumps the plastic bottle. Despite requiring more petroleum, PET bottles require less energy to produce and are subject to a less complex supply chain than aluminum cans. And because a bottle can hold more liquid than a can, a single 2-liter bottle of soda is responsible for around half the greenhouse gas emissions as that of 5.6 cans of soda. Aluminum cans are also heavier to transport, requiring more fuel.
Although it's thought to have a heavier burden on the environment, soda sold in aluminum cans is more popular than PET-bottled pop. In 1999, 65 billion canned soft drinks were sold compared to 24 million units of plastic bottled soda.
Can and bottle waste
When not served from a fountain, soda is predominately packaged in and consumed from plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Plastic soda bottles (one billion pounds of PET bottles were recovered in 2004) are not biodegradable. When they end up as trash in landfills, they stay there for up to 700 years before beginning to decompose. Recycling plastic bottles reduces the amount of trash clogging landfills, and limits the environmental exposure to chemical contaminants from products like soap and cleaning products that can seep into the soil and contaminate ecosystems. Recycling plastics also saves energy. One recycled plastic bottle conserves enough energy to power a light bulb for up to three hours.
Aluminum soft drink and beer cans accounted for 1.4 million tons of waste in 2005; 0.7 million tons were recovered for recycling. Although aluminum cans represent only 1.4 percent of the total waste stream by weight, they contribute to 14 percent of the emissions embodied in 1 ton of landfill-bound waste. The recycling of a single soda can saves enough energy to run a computer for up to three hours.
Although a bulk of the environmental ills of soda consumption comes from packaging and consumer concerns tend to be health-centric (see Related health issues below), there are other eco-issues that can be avoided by drinking natural sodas or no soda at all. For example, the second largest use of corn in North America (followed by livestock feed) is to make high-fructose corn syrup. The chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional corn production are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways.
Most natural sodas replace high-fructose corn syrup with natural ingredients that are sometimes organic. Like other food products, when soda is Certified Organic, its ingredients must meet criteria set forth by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: they must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.
The production of sugar, another agricultural ingredient found in many sodas both conventional and natural, is also ripe with eco-dangers. Out of all crops, the World Wildlife Fund considers sugar to the most harmful to biodiversity. Habitat destruction needed to make way for plantations, the massive amount of water used for irrigation, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the discharging of polluted wastewater are all factors. Ecosystems particularly affected by sugar production include Florida's Everglades, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and rivers in Southeast Asia and Africa.
The big guys go natural
Soft drink behemoth PepsiCo jumped on the natural soda bandwagon by launching Pepsi Raw in early 2008. This "healthy" alternative to conventional Pepsi can be found in a limited number of bars and nightclubs across the UK. Pepsi Raw contains none of the staples of standard Pepsi—high-fructose corn syrup, caffeine, artificial colors, citric and phosphoric acids—and instead contains ingredients like cane sugar, coffee leaf, apple extract, and tantaric acid from grapes. Pepsi Raw boasts a slightly lower calorie count than Pepsi.
In 2006, Cadbury Schweppes reformulated 7 Up to contain natural ingredients like filtered carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, natural citric acid, natural flavors, and natural potassium citrate. After pressure from public interest groups, such as nonprofit the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Cadbury Schweppes halted claims that 7 Up was "100% natural." Detractors felt using such a term was cagey given that high-fructose corn syrup—although originating from corn—goes through a series of very unnatural, complex stages to produce and is linked to diabetes and obesity. The drink now boasts "100% natural flavors."
In 2004, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi came under fire in India in when the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released reports claiming that beverages produced and marketed in India by both companies contained unsafe levels of pesticides and insecticides like DDT, lindane, malathion, and chlorpyrifos. Drinking these beverages, the reports claimed, could lead to cancer and birth defects, and harm the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems. Following this report, lawmakers called for a ban on both Pepsi and Coke products and "smash-the-bottle" campaigns were initiated across the country. Indian Parliament even stopped selling Pepsi and Coke products in its cafeteria. Both companies fought back, denying the claims, launching counter-attack campaigns, and taking CSE's allegations to court. As of 2006, six Indian states had completely or partially banned the sale of Coke and Pepsi products.
Ironically, a 2004 article in the Guardian revealed that Indian farmers unable to afford pricey chemical pesticides have turned to spraying cotton and chili fields with Coke, Pepsi, and other soft drinks. It's unclear exactly why insects are repelled by these unlikely pesticides, but they have been praised by farmers as being effective, cheap, and safe to handle.
Also in India, a Coca-Cola plant in the village of Plachimada was shuttered in 2004 after pressure from local and global activists. Opponents charged that Coke depleted local water supplies and polluted what scarce supplies remained, rendering the community drinking water toxic.
- Vending machines, a soda source for many, are massive energy guzzlers, keeping beverages cold and on a 24/7 basis. ENERGY STAR-qualified beverage vending machines use 50 percent less power than standard models and feature more energy-efficient compressors, fan motors, and lighting systems. Students at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and St. Lawrence University can down late night Cokes with the peace of mind knowing that their schools have installed energy-saving devices, called VendingMisers, around cold beverage vending machines. In Spain, solar-powered vending machines have been placed on beaches and golf courses.
- Fountain soda purchased at fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations is predominately consumed from disposable paper cups. All this soda sipping on the go accounts for a significant amount of landfill waste. Often, opting for the largest soda size is an earth-wise option as they are sometimes served in plastic, not paper, cups. Frequently, these plastic cups are refillable or can be taken home for reuse. For example, 7-Eleven sells plastic Big Gulp® Car Cups that can be reused repeatedly. The patrons of Taiwan's fast-food restaurants are encouraged to recycle waste—leftover food, recyclable paper, liquids, and regular waste—at facilities in each establishment. And in South Korea, diners at a fried chicken chain can feast out of the Col-Pop, an ingenious container that holds both soda and chicken nuggets and has to be seen to be believed.
Related health issues
Soft drinks have long been linked to various health concerns, most notably obesity. Americans drink more carbonated beverages—an edible with no nutritional value that sells better than any other product at grocery stores, including fruit and veggies—than water on a daily basis. In total, Americans take in 67,840 calories per year from soft drinks. It's estimated that soda represents 10 percent of calories in the American diet, an alarming statistic to those tracking the steady climb of American obesity rates. Other health issues facing soda sippers include cell damage (caused by the preservative sodium benzoate), osteoporosis (due to mineral-leaching phosphates), gum and tooth disease, and a compromised immune system.
And finally, caffeine, the reason many turn to soda and other drinks like coffee. Caffeine is an addictive stimulate that when used in excess can toy with the body's hormones and lead to dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations, and more. On the positive side, caffeine helps boost metabolic and respiration rates.
In May 2006, beverage industry heavyweights Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Cadbury Schweppes voluntarily removed soft drinks from American elementary, middle, and high schools. Under the agreement, elementary schools cannot serve soda, diet soda, sports drinks, and certain juice drinks. All approved beverages, such as water and orange juice, must be served in containers under 8 ounces. The same rules apply to middle schools, but servings up to 10 ounces are allowed. In high schools, sugar-laden sodas are forbidden but diet sodas and other diet drinks, juices, and sports drinks with under 100 calories per serving are allowed. Approved beverages in high schools cannot be larger than 12 ounces.
The dangers of diet
Although diet soft drinks are usually sans sugar and/or high-fructose corn syrup—thought by researchers to be the source of a chemical chain reaction that can ultimately lead to diabetes—and subsequently contain less calories, these beverages pose another slew of health concerns. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener found in over 6,000 products and commonly referred to as Equal or NutraSweet, is responsible for over 75 percent of adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. These reactions include anxiety attacks, headaches, joint pain, memory loss, depression, and even seizures and death. Aspartame is composed of three different chemicals: Phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol, a lethal poison. For more on the the dangers of aspartame see Aspartamekills.com.
- food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks, such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- PET (polyethylene terephthalate): Plastic polymer in the polyester family, mainly derived from petroleum and used by the chemicals industry for bottles, textiles, and industrial moldings. Has a resin code of #1 for plastics recycling. One of the main plastics used by the beverage industry for plastic bottles for retail sale.
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