Many steps using fossil fuels to make cans & potato chips

Preface.  I am gobsmacked by how much energy goes into making beverage cans and potato chips, look at all the steps, each one using energy!  Why haven’t we run of oil yet? Especially when you look at everything else out there, cars, roads, bridges, buildings, each of them going through even more energy intensive steps.  

One of my ideas to preserve knowledge was to etch books on aluminum cans since they don’t rust and there are so many of them. Books and microfiche only last 500 years at best, and the electric grid will be down long before that.  But with conventional oil peaking in 2018 (EIA 2020), there’s not much time left for my aluminum can preservation of knowledge, if it would work that is — the materials scientists I wrote didn’t write back. They probably still think I’m a crackpot!

EIA. 2020. International Energy Statistics. Petroleum and other liquids. Data Options. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Select crude oil including lease condensate to see data past 2017.

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy”, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins. 1999. Natural Capitalism. Earthscan Publications   Chapter 3: “Waste Not”, pages 49-50.

A striking case study of the complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking, where they trace the origins and pathways of a can of English cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage.

  1. Bauxite is mined in Australia,
  2. trucked to a chemical reduction mill,
  3. each ton of bauxite processed and purified into a half ton of aluminum oxide.
  4. It is then stockpiled,
  5. loaded on a giant ore carrier
  6. and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity.
  7. After a month-long journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.
  8. The smelter takes two hours to turn each half ton of aluminum oxide into a quarter of a ton of aluminum metal, in ingots ten meters long.
  9. These are cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Sweden or Germany.
  10. There each ingot is heated to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit
  11. and rolled down to a thickness of an eighth of an inch.
  12. The resulting sheets are wrapped in ten-ton coils
  13. and transported to a warehouse,
  14. and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country,
  15. where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication.
  16. The aluminum is then sent to England,
  17. where sheets are punched and formed into cans,
  18. which are then washed,
  19. dried,
  20. painted with a base coat,
  21. and then painted again with specific product information.
  22. The cans are next lacquered,
  23. flanged (they are still topless),
  24. sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent the cola from corroding the can,
  25. and inspected.
  26. The cans are palletized,
  27. fork lifted,
  28. and warehoused until needed.
  29. They are then shipped to the bottler,
  30. where they are washed
  31. and cleaned once more,
  32. then filled with water mixed with flavored syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas.
  33. The sugar is harvested from beet fields in France and undergoes
  34. trucking,
  35. milling,
  36. refining
  37. and shipping.
  38. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open-pit mines – a process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round-the-clock, the mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality.
  39. The caffeine is shipped from a chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.
  40. The filled cans are sealed with an aluminum ‘pop-top’ lid at the rate of fifteen hundred cans per minute,
  41. then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching color and promotional schemes.
  42. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old-growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the home of grizzly, wolverines, otters, and eagles.
  43. Palletized again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse,
  44. and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within three days.

The consumer buys twelve ounces of the phosphate-tinged, caffeine-impregnated, caramel-flavored sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes; throwing the can away takes a second. In England, consumers discard 84% of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminum waste, after counting production losses, is 88%. The United States still gets three-fifths of its aluminum from virgin ore, at 20 times the energy intensity of recycled aluminum, and throws away enough aluminum to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.

Every product we consume has a similar hidden history, an unwritten inventory of its materials, resources, and impacts. It also has attendant waste generated by its use and disposal … The amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its weight; that of a laptop computer, close to 4,000 times its weight. Two quarts of gasoline and a thousand quarts of water are required to produce a quart of Florida orange juice. One ton of paper requires the use of 98 tons of various resources.

Ryan JC, Durning AT. 2012. Stuff:  The secret lives of everyday things.  Sightline Institute.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is potato-chip-manufacturing.jpg

A diesel-powered harvester dug up my potato, which was trucked to a processing plant nearby.

Half the potato’s weight, mostly water, was lost in processing.

The remainder was potato parts, which the processing plant sold as cattle feed.

Processing my potato created two-thirds of a gallon of waste-water. This water contained dissolved organic matter and one-third gram of nitrogen.

The waste-water was sprayed on a field outside the plant. The field was unplanted at the time, and the water sank underground.

Freezing the potato slices required electrical energy, which came from a hydroelectric dam on the Snake River. 

Frozen foods often require 10 times more energy to produce than their fresh counterparts. In 1960, 92% of the potatoes Americans ate were fresh; by 1990, Americans ate more frozen potatoes, mostly french fries, than fresh ones. My fries were frozen using hydrofluorocarbon coolants, which have replaced the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that harm the ozone layer. Some coolants escaped from the plant. They rose 10 miles up, into the stratosphere, where they depleted no ozone, but they did trap heat, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

A refrigerated 18-wheeler brought my fries to Seattle. They were fried in corn oil from Nebraska, sprinkled with salt mined in Louisiana, and served with ketchup made in Pittsburgh of Florida tomatoes. My ketchup came in four annoyingly small aluminum and plastic pouches from Ohio.

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8 Responses to Many steps using fossil fuels to make cans & potato chips

  1. Fred says:

    Let’s delve into what it cost in energy to grow the potato: Way more energy goes into growing the potato than anything else. Manufacturing the equipment it takes to produce the potato is unbelievable. The fertilizer, other chemical for fungicides, herbicides, pesticides. You don’t grow potatoes without irrigation and irrigation systems that are run under pressure provided by pumps. Much of the production is stored in elaborate facilities that cost a huge amount of energy to build and maintain the optimum temperature and humidity to store… get the picture.

    All of industrial agriculture has been made possible by the abundance of cheap fossil fuel and water. How much longer this can be considered BAU is debatable, but my guess is, not much longer. I believe the increased scarcity of cheap oil will lead to more expensive food and eventually food shortages and starvation on a massive scale.

    I’ve been in production agriculture my entire life (I’m 71) and this is what it looks like to me. Some one please give me a more optimistic view.

    • David Higham says:

      You probably know that Pimental’s analysis in ‘Food ,Energy and Society’ concluded that when the energy required for food production,processing,and transportation are included,industrial agriculture uses about ten calories of fossil fuel energy for each calorie of food energy consumed.
      As a comparison,a PNG highlands sweet potato grower (not using fossil fuel energy) uses about one calorie of energy for each twelve
      calories of food energy consumed,or about 120 times more energy-efficient than the industrial average.
      I wonder how the U.N. calculate their human population projections.
      (9 to 11 billion people by 2100,etc. ) It seems that they have assumed that the enormous energy input from oil and gas required
      by industrial agriculture continues unabated. Energy blind,in other

  2. Kevin M. says:

    I have been thinking a lot about peak oil recently and the concerns that come with it; if we have hit it, whether there is plateau, or a Seneca cliff coming. I read somewhere the U.S. military thinks it has till 2040 at least to switch over to renewables and their information gathering ability probably well outstrips the average persons. That being said an affordability crisis will probably hit most people before a true long term supply crisis.
    When I see things like this I feel better about the idea of the long plateau vs my fear of a Seneca cliff because it reminds me of just how terribly wasteful our society is. If people had access to zero waste supermarkets and if beverage distributors were allowing people to fill reusable containers then this article would quickly become a monument to how much energy we squandered.
    I have said before I would love to see some numbers on a bicycle riding, permaculture farming, low waste society. I would love to how long rebuildables and the remaining fossil fuels in the 2030’s could power such a society if we make assumptions such as fossil fuels were no longer used for heating and cooling most of the year (for example heat a home to the mid-thirties when pipes might otherwise burst), travel were mostly by bike, bus, train or other lower energy transport, etc.
    I suspect that the first affordability crisis for fossil fuels will hit personal transportation, heating/cooling, large scale construction, and other non-essentials before we can no longer afford to produce things like hand held farming equipment and ship things like phosphorus and sea weed fertilizer.
    That is how I imagine that while our total oil supplies shrink we could manage not to starve to death while our population would hopefully continue to trend downward.
    Again I would love to see an article on this with the kind of attention to detail you give the numbers.

    • David Steel says:

      When oil prices spike as post covid demand pushes up against post peak oil supply, then we will see inflation and unrest. In the west this unrest will be quelled by making oil affordable again – it can’t be via direct subsidy (governments cant be seen to be subsiding fossil fuels) – so it will be via indirect subsidy i.e. give the money to the people via Universal Basic Income.

      At no point, will this be a stated response to rising oil prices – instead it will be hailed as levelling up – a great reset. There may be some fig leaf tax rises on the wealthy (actually the middle class) – but in reality it will be funded by unlimited money printing – otherwise known as MMT.

      Not possible ? Perhaps but then who in our closely coupled globalised world is going to throw the proverbial spanner. Not the oil producers (big winners) – not China – not the bankrupt western countries. They have no choice but to keep the game going.

      Of course the poor countries lose (they can’t print) – they will be starved of oil and will get poorer.

      And with high sustained oil prices we will see an even bigger push to “cheaper” renewables – the Green Leap Forward as I like to call it. Of course it can’t work but then high oil prices will also bring the last of the unconventional oil and deep oil into production. So the effect may be to soften the gradient on the downslope of oil production – at least for a while.

      UBI,MMT,Great Reset, Green Revolution etc are already being pushed by left and right – it just a matter of time in my opinion. We aren’t there quite yet, but Covid has moved it closer.

      Its not a solution, its a delaying tactic – the effect will be to push the Hubbert curve into a Seneca cliff – but it might buy a decade of BAU if you live in a rich country. It might not.

      • energyskeptic says:

        Money is created with credit and destroyed when the debt is paid off, we don’t have the money printing problems of other nations, but we do have a helicopter problem of dumping enough money into poor people’s hands. The unbelievably unfair distribution of wealth in the U.S. will no doubt play a role in our downfall as social unrest unfolds faster here than elsewhere. Even the covid relief was done corruptly with wealthy companies receiving money that shouldn’t have gone to them. Typically rising oil prices cause yet another financial crash, and once again oil prices are too low to start new projects. And now EROI looms, tar sand EROI is 3 to 8, offshore also low, at some point all the money in the world won’t matter if it takes more energy to drill, pump, pipe or rail to a refinery, process into usable products, and distribute to 160,000 gas stations can’t happen anymore. And even then so much energy will go to this that little will be left for society. I think the plan made in the 70s was to have a crazy strong military to use at the end of oil, so far to keep it flowing for everyone, but when we get desperate enough, try to secure it for the USA. The really huge military was necessary because China, Russia, and Europe are much closer to the Middle East, where at least half the oil is. And the other side of Hubbert’s cure is going to be a cliff, all that enhanced oil recovery sucked out oil that would have been available in the future, and makes the downside much steeper, the scariest rollercoast ride you’ve ever been on. But we’ll see. I’ve saved of hundreds of people’s predictions, but it would take a bit of time to organize them and send a trophy to the winner (if trucks are still running)

        • Kevin M. says:

          You are probably right there will be no intentional transition to lower energy states until we are forced and at that point it will be painful.
          I’m just trying to stay positive, for my sanity and also because it helps when trying to tell people the truth. I have tried warning people but even when I say it really gently using phrases like what would happen if oil were several times more expensive they generally shut out the message pretty quickly. Even if they are interested at first they jump to alternatives. So next you explain to them that renewables require storage and nuclear will need recycling so they become quite expensive too. I try to stay positive and say that it is likely the economy will shrink and at this point you lose almost everybody they don’t want to think about it or plan for it.
          Not planning is a shame. If we were prepared to enter a lower energy state it might not be a complete disaster. People could enter a homesteading mindset and get appropriate equipment and systems set up. It might be too late but the world could have build long lasting stone roads like the Romans. Permaculture farms with well built homes and other intelligent things could have been built. The U.S. still has a pretty good canal and river system but it will probably need to be downgraded to the way the locks used to function which I am guessing was some sort of animal power.
          Is there a forum for this kind of thing where people chat about this stuff? It’s hard to have good conversations in a comment system.

          • energyskeptic says:

            You could form a meetup group, there are bound to be other people in your area as keen to meet others as you are. I’d known about peak oil for 4 years before David Room began a meetup group in Oakland where I live, and it was such a huge relief to meet others, plus we were activist, and got both Oakland and San Francisco to have peak oil task forces.

            There’s a peak oil group on facebook. And Ugo Bardi’s Cassandra’s legacy. Make facebook friends with Gail Tverberg and others writing about this issue. Look at where you can comment at the end with other folks. Also (yeah, commenting isn’t great, but still…) There were several yahoo groups, such as energyresources and runningonempty, but they’re gone as of late 2020. I know how you feel, it is so lonely to be surrounded by energy blind people who adamantly don’t want to be enlightened, guess that’s human nature. Why are we different is the question… I’m in several private forums with people who’ve been watching this unfold, many longer than me, and it helps me keep my sanity, and we discuss all sorts of things, since what isn’t interwoven with energy in some way?

            And yes, there are things we could do. Just today I was thinking how the ASCE, American society of civil engineers, who write a report on American infrastructure every few years, could help come up with ideas on prolonging vital infrastructure. Materials engineers to preserve knowledge. Canals designed that low-tech could still dredge and maintain. Roman stone roads for sure. Ways to use busted up concrete, rusted steel and iron. Maybe people in the third world have already figured this out to some extent…

  3. Bruce Wilds says:

    For both political and economic reasons, poor recycling practices continue to haunt America and most of the world. Both an increase in population, as well as the growth of electronic devices per-capita, has created a disposal issue that the world has yet to address. The article below delves into our failure to handle the massive amount of E-waste being generated each year. This article has been drawing responses from all over the world.