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August 2006


Aluminum can collection needs improvement

According to the Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the number of aluminum cans recycled in the United States in 2005 was 51.4 billion. This translates into a recycling rate for beverage containers of 52 percent, close to a 1 percent increase over the 2004 rate.

Almost 99 billion cans (2.9 billion pounds) were produced in the United States in 2005. The cans recycled in 2005, equals 1.5 billion pounds of processed aluminum.

The Aluminum Can Council, a sub-group of the Aluminum Association and CMI, points outs that the aluminum can is the only beverage packaging material that more than covers the cost of collection and re-processing for itself, as well as helping to subsidize the collection of other recyclable materials.

“This rising rate reflects the high value of aluminum recycling,” said Patrick M. Franc, chairman of the Aluminum Association and president of ARCO Aluminum Inc. “There are tremendous social, economic and environmental benefits to recycling aluminum cans and the messages are getting through to American consumers. We encourage everyone to contribute to a sustainable environment by purchasing and recycling aluminum beverage cans.”

But the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) and the International Rivers Network (IRN), two non-profit environmental organizations, have a different take on the increase. They say that the latest recycling numbers obscure the real environmental costs of aluminum production.

“The optimistic data released by the Aluminum Association has a dark side,” said CRI executive director Pat Franklin. “They failed to mention that we are still trashing 800,000 tons of aluminum beverage cans a year – the equivalent to the annual output of 3 to 4 major primary aluminum smelters.

“I was surprised to see how slight the increase was,” she added, “given the record-breaking prices for scrap aluminum in 2005. The actual number of cans collected last year was 100 million fewer than the number collected in 2004 (51.5 billion).”

In response to this point, the Aluminum Association says that it produced fewer cans in 2005 and that even with a higher return rate the net was lower.

Franklin noted that of the 11 states with beverage container deposit laws (bottle bills), they recycled 75 to 95 percent of all cans sold, while states without bottle bills have an average can recycling rate of 35 percent.

“This means that there is already a realistic policy option to combat container waste,” said Franklin, “but it has not been adopted more widely due to industry lobbying, public relations and lip service. The beverage industry spends millions each year to combat deposit legislation, while we continue to trash 5 out of every 10 cans sold. If container and beverage producers won’t accept responsibility for managing their can waste, Americans need to ask their state legislators to do the job.”

Jim Jeffords, the independent senator from Vermont, has proposed national bottle bills since 1975, but thus far has been unable to garner the votes required to make it out of the committee to the Senate floor.

Robin King, the Aluminum Association’s vice president, public affairs, opposes the notion of bottle bill legislation as the only viable means to improve recycling rates.

“There is great room for growth if municipalities that conduct curbside recycling could promote both recycling for environmental reasons and for the value reason of the commodities at the consumer level.” King said.

Used aluminum cans have a value of between one and two cents per can. In most states with bottle bills, the deposit value is five cents.

Through initiatives such as the as the municipal Curbside Value Partnership (CVP), Cans for Habitat, and the Recycle Challenge school drop-off program, the Aluminum Can Council and other industry associations have worked to stress the environmental and economic value of recycling aluminum cans.

The CVP, a project of the Aluminum Can Council, is a national partnership with municipal curbside programs, funded by organizations that include the Aluminum Association, and Can Manufacturers Institute, and companies Alcoa, Anheuser-Busch, ARCO, Ball Corporation, Novelis and REXAM.

“While curbside recycling is available to only half the United States population, only half of those with access are actually using it,” said King, “so there is a huge opportunity to close that gap.

While the aluminum industry does buy scrap aluminum in 40-ton loads, King noted that it is difficult for small recycling firms to make a profit, pointing out that as curbside recycling has increased, the number of buy back centers has diminished – either closing down or scaling back their operations.

He stressed that this shift could be explained by the increasing value of industrial recycling, especially of aluminum products that are more valuable by volume weight compared to aluminum cans.

Concerning deposits to improve recycling rates for cans, King says that “deposits are not, unfortunately, a one-size fits all solution,” and that states with bottle bills, “some of them work really well and others are not working all that well. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, you are not going to find an aluminum can recycling rate in those states. There is a big mystery as to why they are not working well, but we do know that there are administrative and transparency difficulties within some deposit models.

Jenny Gitlitz, CRI’s research director, disagreed.

“The political desire to deal with can recycling on a nationwide basis has been lacking on the part of industry and the federal government,” she said. “Venue recycling and programs like Cash for Cans are good for local public education, but the volumes recovered are a drop in the bucket. They haven’t increased the recycling rate.”

Gitlitz said that deposits create an incentive to bring containers back when the natural market value is inadequate to encourage that.

“In non-deposit states where the market value is one or two cents per can, about 35% of cans are recycled,” she said. “With a nickel deposit, redemption ranges from 70% (Massachusetts and New York) to 85% (Oregon). In Michigan, a dime brings back over 90% of cans. This is what we should shoot for.”

She explained that the eleven deposit states are pulling up the national average, and without them, the United States can recycling rate would be lower still.

Gitlitz said that local government should not have to shoulder the burden for recycling programs.

“This is a producer responsibility issue,” she said. “The businesses that profit from these disposable products should pay for recycling. They will pass the costs on to consumers.”

Gitlitz said that tremendous growth in curbside recycling nationwide (2,711 programs in 1990, 9,709 programs by 2000) coincided with recycling rate declines for cans, glass, and plastic.

“Can recycling peaked at 65 percent in 1992,” she said. “It’s fallen by 20 percentage points since.”

She attributed this apparent paradox to increasing away-from-home consumption.

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