Did you know that a used aluminum can is recycled and back on store shelves in as little as 60 days?
One of the most efficient forms of recycling is aluminum can recycling, with more than 50 percent of the cans produced re-entering the product stream.
Aluminum is a great candidate for recycling because compared to other recyclables like plastics, the quality of the material degrades less during the recycling process, and it can be recycled over and over again.
It's also the most valuable recyclable material. Although by weight aluminum makes up less than 2 percent of the stream of recycled materials in the U.S., it generates 40 percent of the revenue required to keep recycling programs running.
This value provides an economic incentive for individuals and businesses to recycle. The aluminum industry pays out an average total of $800 million per year for empty cans, which goes to organizations like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Habitat for Humanity.
How can recycling started
Discovered in the 1820s, aluminum is one of the most abundant metals on Earth. It was first used to create all-aluminum beverage cans in the 1960s by Reynolds Metals Co. (now part of Alcoa Inc.), and the easy-open lids made it a popular choice for consumers, creating a strong demand for aluminum can production. By 1967, when Coca Cola and Pepsi began offering their products in cans instead of glass bottles, there were millions of them in existence.
This oversupply — and the waste it generated — led to the first large-scale aluminum can recycling program, initiated in 1968. The process was automated by CP Manufacturing in 1976. U.S. collection grew from 1.2 billion cans recycled in 1972 to over 65 billion cans in 1992, the year that recycling rates peaked.
Requires 95 percent less energy
According to Alcoa Inc., it takes 95 percent less energy to create an aluminum beverage can from recycled aluminum rather than raw materials. And if the aluminum can recycling rate hit 75 percent, we could save 1,286 megawatts of electricity per year — the amount generated by two coal-fired power plants. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the aluminum can recycling rate reached 57.4 percent, with 55.5 billion cans converted back into beverage containers.
“In 2009, over 4.6 million metric tons of aluminum was processed by the U.S. scrap industry saving the energy equivalent of 1.3 billion gallons of gasoline,” said Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. “The data shows that aluminum cans continue to be a valuable recyclable commodity.”
Aluminum is definitely in demand, and when cans are recycled, they aren't just turned into new cans. Recycled aluminum from cans is used to create metal goods for industries like transportation, packaging, machinery and construction materials. It's particularly valuable to the transportation industry due to its light weight and strength — the equivalent of 24 aluminum cans can hold up to a 4,000-pound vehicle!
How is an aluminum can recycled?
Once they're collected, aluminum cans are gathered at large regional scrap processing facilities where they're condensed into 30-pound blocks or 1,200-pound bales. Then, they're shipped to aluminum companies like Alcoa for recycling. At this point, the blocks and bales are shredded, crushed, stripped of their labels in a high-heat burning process and loaded into melting furnaces to be blended with new, virgin aluminum.
The molten aluminum is poured into 25-foot-long squared rods weighing 30,000 pounds each and fed into rolling mills that flatten out the metal from 20 inches thick to just one-hundredth of an inch. These sheets, rolled into coils, are shipped to can manufacturers, who deliver the finished cans to beverage companies to be filled with soft drinks and other beverages.
Alcoa Inc. operates one of the largest used beverage can recycling facilities in the world in Knoxville, Tenn., sending all recycled metal from the plant to its adjacent aluminum sheet rolling mill where it's immediately turned back into new cans. Alcoa has announced an aggressive goal to increase the used beverage can recycling rate in the United States to 75 percent by 2015.
One major way Alcoa plans to accomplish this goal is by making recycling and collection more convenient. The company launched a consumer bin grant program that sent 25,000 recycling bins to 18 states in 2009, and also sponsors RecycleBank, the leader in rewards-based curbside recycling.