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Systems Thinking: The Story of a Can of Cola

The most crucial feature of systems thinking is seeing the big picture. As aspects and phenomena are not detached from one another, systems thinking helps us analyse structures and ways of thinking that generate and maintain problems.


Jani Siirilä

yliopettaja, vaikuttava ammatillinen pedagogiikka
principal lecturer, engaging vocational pedagogy
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 24.08.2021

That feeling you have during a hot summer day, maybe chilling on the beach or after a hike in the nature, that you now really need an ice cold can of Cola. Here is a short story about the can of Cola before making its way to the market to be ready and waiting for you.

Traveling raw materials

The production of a can of cola sold in England begins with mining bauxite in Australia. Aluminium oxide is extracted from the ore in a chemical process. The raw material is then transported to Sweden on a cargo ship, sailing over two oceans and taking about a month.

In a Swedish metal refinement factory, metal is extracted from aluminium oxide with the help of heat. The ten-metre-long and 20-centimetre-thick aluminium bars are then transported to Germany where the metal is chopped down to ten-tonne coils. Then, these coils are transported to another German factory where the metal is cut down to slices tenth of the original size.

The raw material continues its trip to England where the cans are produced. The shaped aluminium cans are washed, and product information is printed on the surface. The insides of lidless cans receive a coating, so that the cola won’t corrode it. The cans are stored to wait for transportation to the beverage factory. At the beverage factory, the cans are rewashed and then filled with water, flavoured syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide.

So much production for a moment of enjoyment

Sugar beets are grown in French fields, after which the beets are cultivated into sugar and transported to the English beverage factory. Phosphorus is transported from Idaho, United States, where phosphorus stones are mined in open pits. During mining activities, cadmium and radioactive thorium is released. In 24 hours, the mine consumes energy equal to 100 000 people. The caffeine for the beverage is produced in an English chemical plant.

The filled cans receive lids with the help of automatization technology at the speed of 1 500 cans per minute, packaged in package material designed by an advertising agency and produced by a carboard factory. The trees used as raw material for cardboard come from all over the world: some from Sweden, some from Siberia, and some from Columbia. Parts of the felling area is primeval forest, which constitute to territories for rare animals.

Packaged cans are transported to local wholesales or shared storages of grocery stores. From there, cans are again, transported to stores, where they are sold to consumers in couple of days. The consumer purchases a 12-can-package of caramel-flavoured sugar water with caffeine and phosphorus. The production costs of one can are higher than that of the beverage inside the can. Consuming a can and its content usually takes only a few minutes.

The story seen from the perspective of learning

Seeing the bigger picture is the most crucial feature of systems thinking. Aspects and phenomena are not detached from one another. With systems thinking, we are able to analyse structures and ways of thinking that generate and maintain problems.

Global market economy enables aspects and assets that we perceive as cornerstones of Western well-being. However, it also creates challenges that are extremely difficult to solve, such as climate change, inequality, diminishing the state of the environment, or global economic inequality.

We all as citizens and consumers make dozens of everyday choices. By choosing not to buy or buying a product, we send the message that we want less this but more that. That is why everyday decisions are so powerful in meaning. Through all that, we can change the world, step by step building the road of sustainability.

Haaga-Helia’s school of vocational teacher education coordinates the Sustainability in Finance (SuFi) Interreg project during 2020-2022. In this project a vocational Sustainability in Finance open online module (15 ECTS) will be developed for vocational education and training (VET).

Picture: Timo Pajunen