Aluminium can recycling – the lack of it

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The aluminium can recycling rate in the United States, according to statistics, has fallen to just a tad over 51 per cent. The US population throws away 1,500 cans every second.

Yes, you read that right. Each and every second of every minute of every day Americans throw at least fifteen hundred – that is to say one thousand five hundred (1,500) aluminium cans in the trash. And, as said, that is just the population of the United States. Work that one out globally. I actually would hate to even try to do so.

In the 1990’s we actually recycled more of our aluminium cans than we do today; the rate was 60% back then. We are in fact going backwards in terms of recycling rather than forwards. This has to change. The basic material to aluminium, bauxite, is but a finite resource and the production of it is also rather bad to the environment.

The Container Recycling Institute make a very valid point in that “recyclable” does not necessarily equals “recycled”.

Why, though, is the recycling rate actually declining as more and more people are looking to “go green”?

The problem must lie, I am sure, (1) with the consumer who is too laze to actually recycle the can and also (2) with the fact that, once they are in the trash, say in parks and such, they just go into the landfill refuse, period. No attempt is even made to separate the waste, generally.

And all of those beverage containers that are not being recycled end up in the landfills. But why landfills?

This, according to the Container Recycling Institute, is because of a combination of our “on-the-go” lifestyle and our communities’ lack of public recycling bins which has left us holding a container, often literally, with nowhere to put it. Thus, with nowhere else left to put it, we throw it in the trash. Personally, I wonder, though, as to whether people would actually separate it from ordinary trash, that is to say, even if “dual stations”, say, would be provided in towns and cities and villages and parks where to put aluminium can separate from other trash as to whether people would actually go to the effort of doing it. I actually doubt this. While many claim to want to go green they seem to be leaving often lots to be desired in that department.

According to E Magazine, we threw away 11 billion cans in the 1970’s, 29 billion a year in the 1980’s, 35 billion a year in the 1990’s, and about 46 billion every year since 2000. This is a lot of aluminium. And this is just the aluminium cans that are thrown away in the United States that are calculated here, so I understand. This is mind blowing. I hate to think how much that would make every year on a global scale for, while the US may be the biggest consumer of aluminium cans for soda and beer other countries do not lag much behind, I am sure, such as countries of Western Europe.

On to of this, what about the steel cans, whether beverage cans such as beer or soda (some of those are still of steel) and food cans. They too could be recycled. But are they?

The Container Recycling Institute, aside from talking about recycling statistics, also talks about the “dirt” behind the aluminum can.

In order to make one ton of cans five tons of caustic waste are produced. Each ton of aluminum cans requires five tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, crushed, washed, and refined into alumina before it is smelted, creating about five tons of caustic red mud residue which can seep into surface and groundwater. People and animals have suffered from the effects of bauxite mining in Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, and other tropical areas.

It takes 3% of the world’s electricity to making aluminum cans, and while aluminum companies often cite tremendous savings from recycling aluminum, what they forget to mention is that at the current wasting levels, about 23 billion kilowatt-hours are squandered globally each year through ‘replacement production.’ About 7 kWh are saved per pound (33 cans) recycled. Had the 50 billion trashed cans been recycled, the electricity saved could power 1.3 million American homes. In total, the industry’s annual electricity consumption is almost 300 billion kilowatt-hours, or about 3% of the world’s total electricity consumption.

Aluminum smelting release greenhouse gases and toxic emissions - About 95 million tons of greenhouse gases were produced by the global aluminum industry in 2005. Primary aluminum smelting also generates sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are contributors to smog and acid rain. In 2005, 50.7 billion U.S. cans were wasted, resulting in the emission of 75,000 tons of SOx and Nox.

As a little closing fact, let me just mention that only one year’s worth of all the aluminium cans that are annually put into the trash in America instead of being recycled would provide enough aluminum to make more than eight thousand (8,000) Boeing 747 aircraft. That is a lot of airplanes and a lot of aluminium.

I am sure we can – pun intended – do better and get off our dependency on the aluminium can.

© M Smith (Veshengro), April 2008