Battle of the Reusable Bottles: Plastic vs. Aluminum vs. Stainless Steel

Published On May 12, 2010 | By Tomás Bosque | Articles

Reusable Water Bottle Comparison

It’s no secret we advocate for the use of reusable bottles. But how often have you found yourself at the reusable bottle aisle at REI and had no idea what to choose? I mean, how many sleepless nights must one lose trying to figure out exactly what bottle to purchase!?

Well, I probably have not lost sleep over this issue, but nonetheless it’s important to once-and-for-all lay the rest the myths and facts about different types of bottles available for purchase.

Reusable Plastic Bottles

Plastic bottles come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and flavors. From squeezable bike bottles to heavy-duty plastic bottles like those by Nalgene, plastic bottles offer the greatest variety and versatility for consumers.

Lately, however, the news surrounding a key ingredient used in the production of plastic bottles has seen quite a bit of backlash from consumers. BPA, as it is commonly known, has been linked to cancer in lab tests and, predictably, many consumers quickly moved away from plastic bottles. Major bottle companies like CamelBak and Nalgene quickly changed their bottle production techniques to remove this chemical from their bottles.

Should you be concerned about BPA in plastic bottles? Probably not anymore. Nearly every plastic bottle sold in 2010 seems to be BPA-free and manufacturers even have sections on their websites completely devoted to the issue. It is important to note that bottles produced prior to 2010 may have BPA in them; if you are concerned, contact the manufacturer see whether this is a concern.

Do the Plastic Numbers Make a Difference?

The number on the bottom of a plastic container denotes what materials were used to make the item. Many people are confused about what these numbers mean and how they can affect you.

Plastic #1

Most disposable water bottles (e.g. Dasani and Aquafina) are made of plastic #1 or PET. Some users try to reduce their plastic waste by washing these bottles out and reusing them, but bottles made out of #1 are not reusable. Bottles made of #1 are not durable enough to withstand use, cleaning and reuse without losing their integrity. The compelling issue with these bottles is not whether they leach unwanted chemicals into the water, but that bacteria cannot be easily washed out of them. Long storage time on the shelf or in a warm garage or trunk does increase the likelihood of bacterial growth and may cause antimony to leach from the plastic.

Plastic #3, #6, and #7

There are numerous reports that plastics #3, #6, and #7 may leach unhealthful substances into drinks. #3 (PVC) leaches phthalates which have been shown to cause developmental and reproductive damage. #6 (polystyrene) leaches styrene which can cause nervous system effects and liver damage. Polycarbonate, one type of plastic #7 has been shown to leach Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen. Polycarbonate has been banned by the Canadian government and is being re-reviewed by the USEPA. There is a new type of plastic #7 that is BPA-free. None of these three types of plastic is widely recyclable. Plastic #7 is durable, but like most plastic, will wear more quickly if exposed to heat in the dishwasher.

Plastics #2, #4, and #5

Plastics #2, #4, and #5 are the healthiest plastic bottle options since they are not known to leach. These plastic bottles do retain odors and stains and after repeated use, tend to leak if not held upright. This lack of durability makes them a poor choice for long term use, and they will not hold up well in the dishwasher. Plastic #2 is commonly recyclable, but plastics #4 and 5 are not recyclable in many municipalities.

Plastic Bottle Pros:

  • cheapest to buy
  • simple to clean – usually dishwasher safe
  • variety of sizes, colors and shapes
  • doesn’t have a metallic taste

Plastic Bottle Cons:

  • usually not safe for hot liquids or microwaves
  • some models may still have BPA
  • debate over use of plastic toxins continues to exist

Overall Plastic Bottle Rating: 5 out of 5

Reusable Stainless Steel Bottles

Stainless steel bottles are generally crafted from culinary-grade stainless steel and come in many sizes and some different colors. Stainless steel bottles are a decent alternative to plastic bottles if you are concerned about toxins or manufacturing techniques involved with the production of plastic. There are no known safety issues; stainless steel is non-reactive so the bottles do not leach and do not have to be lined.

Stainless steel generally is less dishwasher safe and probably not a good bet in hot climates since the metal will heat up more quickly than its plastic-counterpart.

Stainless Steel Bottle Pros:

  • durable, high-quality design
  • no plastic toxins to worry about
  • more sizes and colors becoming available
  • generally dishwasher safe
  • lightweight and hip

Cons:

  • may dent if dropped
  • possible metallic taste
  • heats up in summer temperatures

Overall Stainless Steel Bottle Rating: 4 out of 5

Reusable Aluminum Bottles

Aluminum bottles often look feel and disguise themselves as stainless steel, but in reality, these bottles are dramatically different than their steel counterparts.

Because aluminum is reactive with acidic liquids, aluminum bottles have to be lined with an enamel or epoxy layer that could become a problem with wear and tear. Some researchers have noted that BPA is one main ingredient used for the epoxy layer. They are durable, but if you drop them, they may dent which may affect the efficacy of the liner within. The most popular aluminum bottles have very narrow necks making them difficult to clean, dry, and load with ice. They are not dishwasher safe. Aluminum bottles with certain types of lining are not recyclable.

Pros:

  • Light-weight
  • Trendy

Cons:

  • Sketchy construction techniques
  • Possible BPA liner
  • Easily dents
  • Difficult to clean

Overall Aluminum Bottle Rating: 1 out of 5 (highly not recommended)

Conclusion

Overall, using any reusable bottle is much better than buying bottled water and immediately throwing the away the waste. I recommend sticking with bpa-free plastic or stainless steel bottles and avoiding aluminum due to liner concerns. When purchasing a reusable bottle, look for bottles that are durable and will stand up to your daily use and punishment. Bottles come in a variety of sizes, colors and lid-types.

Join Ban the Bottle and support the movement away from disposable bottled-water by purchasing a reusable bottle. You can make a difference.

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About The Author

40 Responses to Battle of the Reusable Bottles: Plastic vs. Aluminum vs. Stainless Steel

  1. Paula says:

    I’m surprised that you gave the highest rating to the plastic bottle. Plastic has many other environmental considerations when you consider the manufacturing process and post-consumer life that make both stainless and aluminum better options. There were a few facts that were not quite correct – such as stainless not being dishwasher safe, which it is. It would be great to bring glass into the conversation as well. It’s less practical but is my favorite option.

    Your ultimate goal I agree with though, thank you for creating the conversation here.

    • Toms Bosque says:

      @Paula – thanks for your insight. I did some research on stainless steel and some were not dishwasher safe. This doesn’t mean all aren’t I suppose. Regarding glass: I thought about reviewing, but had trouble seeing this as a good portable solution given its extremely fragile nature. I do believe that it is a healthy option, however.

  2. Jimmy Neutron says:

    What are you views on the disposable plastic water bottle bans that are beginning to occur in the united states and in other countries? what are the pros and cons of disposable plastic water bottle use?

  3. Emily says:

    Hello! I really enjoyed the article, thanks for posting. I’m currently a fan of Klean Kanteen, SIGG, and Camelbak products. Klean Kanteen bottles use food-grade stainless steel, don’t leach, and durable, and highly versatile. They don’t come in a wide range of design, but their are numerous color options as well as lid/bottle shape options. They’re BPA free and they definitely get the job done. SIGG had a bit of a set back with the release of tests that showed that their lining contained BPA- after SIGG continuously boasted that their liner was BPA free… But now they have reinvented their lining and it has been tested/proven to be BPA free. Camelbak bottles are awesome for anyone who is extremely active- hikers, marathon runners, even just for jogging around the neighborhood in the summer. Their flip-and-sip cap is really convenient; the cap is also spill-proof, which is ideal for messy kids. Camelbak also offers a variety of runners/hikers packs to make staying hydrated during your outdoor adventures super easy :). Thanks again for the article, keep it up!

  4. Emily says:

    Great article! I was glad to see you really looked at and compared each type of water bottle. I personally trust stainless steel the most, simply because there is no liner to worry about. While many companies that sell aluminum bottles strive to make sure that their liners are safe, I prefer not to mess with it and just stick with stainless steel. Thanks for the post!

  5. Jay says:

    “stainless steel is non-reactive so the bottles do not leach and do not have to be lined.” But then you state that one of the cons is “possible metallic taste.” How could the metal impart a flavor to the water without leaching?

  6. nic says:

    There have been more recent reports comparing plastic v stainless steel v aluminium and plastic has shown to have the lowest carbon footprint. The metal alternatives simply consume too much energy at the initial stage of producing the material. That said, a huge problem with plastic is with end users not recycling when they are done with their reusable plastic bottles (e.g. when they break down, are no longer usable).

    So, this would be an update on the first comment from 2010. Plastic appears to be the greener alternative.

    I will be going with BPA-free plastic and making sure it gets recycled when I eventually have to get rid of it.

    • Adam says:

      I worked in the plastic water bottling industry for years, trust me when i say that plastic bottling is producing a way higher carbon footprint than Stainless Steel. I saw hundreds of thousands of bottles per day blown, filled , packed, palatalized, and shipped. That’s everyday ! If you take all the processes into consideration to make one disposable plastic bottle and ship it to the store versus a reusable stainless bottle their is no comparison when it comes to environmental impact .

  7. Don Roberts says:

    Very interesting article. It looks like you did your research in order to present compelling arguments for each one. I personally think aluminum bottles produce the most advantages and benefits, but to each his own.

  8. mike says:

    I have had both a metal and a plastic. I prefer plastic. My nalgene is the best never has a bad taste safe in the dishwasher extremly durable. I say plastic is the way to go.

  9. Emily says:

    I agree that standard stainless steel bottles aren’t great for high temperatures because they heat up quickly. But, have you considered insulated stainless steel bottles? Thermos makes a whole variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of stainless steel bottles that have are double walled with a vacuum in between the layers. I have this one: http://www.thermos.com/products/vacuum-insulated-purple-flower-hydration-bottle.aspx

    I can fill it with water and 3-4 ice cubes at night and keep it next to my bed and it will still have a little ice left in the morning. It doesn’t ‘sweat’ like uninsulated bottles and there aren’t any worrisome plastics or coatings. I assume other manufacturers make similar products, but I’ve been so happy with Thermos I’ve never looked elsewhere. I’ve never had any taste issues with my stainless bottle.

  10. Tomas, great article but you have not looked at all the glass bottles. This is not an advertisement, but, my new company offers a solution to the reusable glass bottle breakage problem in public. PURE Glass Bottle is a clear coated glass bottle that is dishwasher safe (on the top rack-hand washing recommended for longer life). If the bottle breaks (it can) all the glass and liquid stays within the clear coating for easy disposal or recycling. The outer clear coating is BPA Free and would burn off in the glass recycling process. Please watch the video on the web site http://www.pureglassbottle.com and watch the video under the tab PURE Advantages to understand the product.

  11. Pingback: 7 Bottled Water Myths – Busted | Ban the Bottle

  12. firewire1972 says:

    Carbon emissions during manufacturing or recycling shouldn’t be a concern or a means of comparison, as there are alternative, renewable, and carbon-free sources of energy (wind, solar…etc) which of course are not used by factories due to “economical reasons”, that in fact means “fewer zeroes in their bank accounts”.

    Industrial waste created while manufacturing all 3 options are pseudo-equally high, so this index is not to be used too.

    Using the cost of manufacturing as a means of comparison should not be also part of the equation, unless our concern is adding few more zeros to the tycoons bank accounts but cutting off jobs and using more polluting components and starting wars here and there to control other nations resources. In fact, higher costs of production in a fair trade and environmentally friendly economy means better distribution of income and less natural resources depletion or utilization, it also means less consumption and less waste (and hence not promoting the “use and dispose” cursed philosophy), and the higher costs are also motives to master the production techniques to reduce costs on the long run.

    In my humble opinion, we should focus on the human well-being and national welfare distribution, and plastic or aluminum are definitely not the right choices.

    All three options do not address the welfare distribution under the capitalist and greedy economy, and they are only cheap because of oil/metals cartels decided and imposed the prices (through stealing via many means other nations resources, mostly African nations and other third world nations), and because the manufacturing processes are not subject to strict environmental considerations, and because the industries enslave their workers by paying ridiculous wages to the labors who work night and day just to barely secure their daily food, while the factories “shareholders” suffer from excessive nutrition and lavish lifestyle diseases!

    It is clear that human well-being and health consideration (from the consumer side, steel factory workers health conditions to be addressed) are better addressed by the culinary-grade stainless steel.

    Hence, I opt for the stainless steel, and encourage bringing back a second even healthier option for family/mass use: Glass containers, as they address all the issues before, produce minimal industrial waste, and create more jobs (distribution companies, return companies, recycling and triage companies…etc).
    We have to clear about our choices, is it money we are after, or human and nature well-being?

  13. Tomás Bosque says:

    @firewire1972 Thank you for your comment! I understand your thoughts about human well-being, but the truth of the matter is consumers are generally less inclined to purchase a product (such as a bottle) for the sole purpose of providing well being to other people. We act in our own self-interest and that is the consumer’s guiding light.

    • firewire1972 says:

      I agree, Tomas, though this is reality and facts, but doesn’t make it the right attitude or solutions :)

      I can’t change the world, at least I can try to, with a word :-P

      • Tomás Bosque says:

        @firewire You definitely can make a difference in this world, one moment at a time. Bottled water continues to be a huge problem and blogs like Ban the Bottle and others are trying to be the voice of reason and sustainability. The first step in getting people to change is providing an outlet of information. I appreciate your comments. Do you have any more info on the bottle you mentioned?

  14. Julie says:

    I just use swiggies, wrist water bottles. They are BPA-free and have been approved by Child Safe International as a safe, green, eco-friendly bottle. Just run them through the dishwasher first and then fill with cold water and keep in the frig for hands-free hydration on the run. swiggies.com

  15. Pingback: Bottled Water Consumption Up 4% in 2011 Despite Increased Opposition | Ban the Bottle

  16. Jacqueline says:

    I am a fan of the new ARIIX bottle, they have a BPA plastic and a Aluminum bottle with an amazing, patent pending filter in it. You can filter out the regular stuff as well as virus, parasites, and bacteria. You can put river water in it. The filter lasts for 2 months even sitting in water all the time. Its the bomb. Down with disposable water bottles, I’m done!
    Jacqueline
    onwards.upwards.you@gmail.com

  17. Jim Jones says:

    I’m tired of hearing about recycling, as if it makes our wasteful consumer lifestyle less objectionable. The only thing recycling is good for is making people feel better about wasting the earth’s dwindling resources. Most recycled consumer items end up in landfills or burned. Flat out, it’s cheaper. If recyled plastic was truly valuable, then people would go through your garbage looking for plastic bottles, the way they do for aluminum. The only way to stop the selfish waste of resources is to reused *everything*.

    • Hannah Ellsbury says:

      Thank you for your comment Jim! We here at Ban the Bottle emphasize reducing and reusing. If this happens, recycling is not necessary. We encourage everyone to reduce the amount of bottled water they purchase and/or buy reusable bottles rather than one-time use plastic bottles.

  18. We are the founders of One More Generation (OMG) which is a nonprofit dedicated to trying to save endangered species and to clean up our environment. During the BP Gulf oil spill, while we were delivering the badly needed animal rescue supplies to the region, we learned about the issue of Plastic Pollution.

    When we returned, we spent the next five months educating ourselves on the issues and then launched our Plastic Awareness Coalition (which now has over 70 organizations who have joined our efforts) and then we launched a weeklong Plastic and Recycling Awareness Program which teaches kids and their families how they can be the solution to the issue of plastic pollution.

    As part of our weeklong program in schools, we provide each child with a reusable water bottle and a cloth reusable shopping bag. We had tried plastic reusable bottles but the problem was that these bottles would also someday end up in our landfills. We have since been offering stainless steel and or aluminum reusable bottles. We always make sure their linings are BPA free and most schools tend to select aluminum since it is 100% recyclable. So far we have not had any issues and the schools are all now starting to set up plastic and aluminum collection areas in their schools so that the community can start reducing our output of non-recyclables.

    Do you have any reason why we should consider plastic reusable bottles vs aluminum considering our initial concerns?

    Thanks for all that you do and for caring so much.

    Best regards from the entire OMG Team ;-)

    • Harry says:

      Carter, i have sent u the email,we quite agree with u that the reusable and healthy bottle is the correct for drinking water,so let’s do together

  19. ReuseRecycle says:

    @Carter and Olivia says
    “We had tried plastic reusable bottles but the problem was that these bottles would also someday end up in our landfills. We have since been offering stainless steel and or aluminum reusable bottles.”
    Can you explain why the plastics go to the landfill but the metals do not? Or why the metals get recycled but the plastics do not?

    @Tomás Bosque
    Your rotating banner discusses some issues with plastics. Please provide the equivalent details for metals.

    • Tomás Bosque says:

      We have some information about metals as pointed out in the post above. Like I mentioned, metal tends to have differing environmental impact.

      Remember, the whole point of what we’re trying to convey is increasing awareness for the problem of bottled water. Any reusable bottle is still better than single-use bottled water.

  20. Am says:

    @Jim Jiones: I agree with you that reuse is best. However i’d like to add that having lived in many parts of developing countries, people most certainly do go to landfills and spend hours picking through for plastic bottles and bags, cans, and anything that is recyclable- namely The Philppines and India. These are resellable by the grams! In Manila, they will also pay a few pesos to garbage truck drivers for a chance to have first pickings before it gets to the landfill

    Really appreciate all this info- many thanks!

  21. Jules says:

    Okay so from what I understand, is that none of the above products mentioned in the article are not healthy for you. On that note, I will find myself a drinking fountain, cup my hands and drink that way =).

  22. Janet says:

    what about ceramic reusable items?
    can that be put in the mix I know that this is kinda a older post but I thought I would ask…

    • Hannah Ellsbury says:

      Thanks for the comment Janet! Ceramic reusable cups and mugs are another great alternative to plastic bottled water. These are especially great for hot beverages like tea.

  23. Maria says:

    Have you heard of the Nimbus Project water bottles? They’re super cool. Their bottles are 300 series stainless steel, and 10% of the purchase goes to a charity of your choice. It’s rad. Anyhoo, thanks for this review. Very helpful!! :)

  24. Frank says:

    We made a reusable glass water bottle alternative to the single-use water bottle that allows users to confidently bring their glass bottle with them no matter where they go. Great for at home, the office, school, we take them everywhere…Anything but single-use water bottles, Ban The Bottle!

  25. Guy Jeremiah says:

    The key message is avoid disposables. When choosing between metal or plastic, consider how many times you are going to use it. Aluminium and Steel have very large carbon footprints, so you would need to use it between 50 and 100 times before being carbon neutral compared to disposables.

  26. Sambasivan says:

    Hello, Really a nice and fantastic post on aluminum product and many more good information, hope to see more posts
    thanks for posting

  27. Steve says:

    Really cool! Great compare/contrast.

  28. Sambasivan says:

    Hi, nice post good information about Aluminum Bottle, these bottles are really attractive and environmental friendly, thanks for the post.

  29. S. Davids says:

    It is widely known that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the safety of aluminium use relating to food and drink and I threw out all my aluminium years ago (better safe than sorry, I refuse to play Russion roulette with my health). Also I’m confused as to why you would rate plastic higher than stainless steel when there is still debate over the toxins used in plastics? Basically some plastics are known to leech toxic chemicals into food/drink but as far as others go the jury is still out and no one really knows. Again, why take the chance when there are safer alternatives available? Added to that most stainless steel is dishwasher safe (although not all). Your article completely disregards safety and you really haven’t done your home work I’m afraid. Persoally I use glass as that is the most inert (safest) material available and stainless steel when doing sports. You might think glass isn’t very strong but that’s not always the case (I’ve dropped cordial glass bottles and wine bottles before and they’ve never broken – I just reuse those).

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