General info on aluminum
Aluminum, under its oxidized form, is the most abundant metal on our planet, representing 8% of earth’s crust. Aluminum drink cans were introduced in the market in 1958 as a true innovation. 20 times lighter than glass, non-toxic, corrosion resistant, and an excellent thermal conductor, aluminum very rapidly became the material of choice for carbonated drinks. Today, on average, Americans consume about one can of soft drink per day. The Aluminum industry reported that in 2012 200 billion cans were used annually around the world, which is 6,700 cans every second. While aluminum is used for drink containers, most food cans are made of stainless steel.
Aluminum cans are a perfectly recyclable material that often goes into our trash instead. Like glass, aluminum is 100% recyclable and can be recycled over and over without loosing any properties. Among the packaging materials reaching our personal waste disposal, aluminum cans have the highest recycling rate, reaching nearly 50% in 2013. Today, on average, aluminum cans contain more than 50% recycled material.
Making aluminum cans from recycled aluminum takes 92-95% less energy than making cans from virgin ore. It is often reported than recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours.
The fundamentals of aluminum recycling are, more than any other material, based on the stock market. In 2017, while a ton of glass had a market value of $17, falling to nearly zero today, aluminum was trading at $1,186. It is fairly well accepted that without the value-added aluminum recycling activity, most curbside recycling programs would not be viable. While the global production of beverage cans continues to grow significantly, the overall recycling volume has decreased in the U.S. over the last few years due to:
- Lower scrap rate market value
- Decreases in soda consumption in average households due to alarming health issues and related information that is widely publicized
- Drastic increase in soda consumption outside of homes (on-the go consumption) where beverage cans are often not recycled (public places, workplaces, events, etc.). In 2010, on-the-go consumption of beverages was believed to represent about 30% of total consumption.
In 2016, 44.5 billion cans were not recycled in the U.S. and ended up in a landfill, carrying a market value of $760 million. Considering the current rate of beverage consumption packaged in aluminum cans, the average individual will have the opportunity to recycle 25,000 can over his or her lifetime. When disposed of in regular trash, the non-ferrous property of aluminum (not magnetic) basically makes it impossible to be later separated from common trash. As can be imagined, an aluminum can will remain in the environment… forever.
How to improve Aluminum recycling
Recycling aluminum and steel cans not only is the right thing to do for all the various reasons discussed above but is also easy. Depending on your local rules, aluminum cans may need to get a quick rinse before being placed in the recycling bin and might also need to be crushed to reduce unnecessary volume. You can have a huge impact on aluminum recycling by looking for opportunities to recycle aluminum when not at home. You can also request that your employer provide recycling locations for your beverage cans.
More to read or watch:
- Aluminum countdown
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- The Aluminum Can Advantage
- About Aluminum
- How it’s made – Aluminium cans
- Aluminum can recycling falls significantly
Author: Stephane Girois, Ph.D.