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November 2003

Aluminum Cans Remain Number One Recycled Beverage Container

Last year, Americans recycled nearly 54 billion aluminum cans, a figure that represents over 53% of the total cans produced in 2002. The aluminum industry paid over $800 million for the used beverage cans.

Brian Sturgell, chairman of The Aluminum Association and executive vice president, Alcan, Inc., said, “Our member companies are on a mission to encourage increased consumer aluminum can recycling. While we continue to be pleased with the fact that the aluminum can is the world’s most recycled beverage container, we are disappointed that we cannot get 100% of the aluminum cans returned.”

According to statistics reported by The Aluminum Association, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the aluminum beverage can is by far the most recycled consumer beverage package in the U.S. and globally, by units, pounds and percentage recycled. It amounts to more than twice the recycling rate and recycled content percentages for beverage containers of other materials, including glass and plastics. 

Robert Marshall oversees aluminum can recovery at Lake Erie Recycling in Ohio.Since the aluminum beverage can is 100 percent recyclable, most of the recovered containers are recycled into new beverage cans. Recycled aluminum cans are back on the grocery shelf in about 90 days, and the process can repeat itself indefinitely. It’s possible because the aluminum can is the only packaging material that more than covers the cost of collection and re-processing for itself, and much like the role of football in collegiate athletic programs, also subsidizes the collection of other containers, including plastic and glass.

Aluminum is the highest-value material recovered and yields the greatest revenue stream of all recovered materials. Analysts agree that if not for the aluminum can, recycling may not exist as we know it, simply due to economics. For example, recycling a single ton of aluminum cans yields approximately $1,200 of revenue. In contrast, the savings from recycling a ton of steel, plastics, glass, or paper comes nowhere close to covering the average collection cost of about $200 per ton. Recycling is essential to the aluminum industry’s operation, and due to successful grassroots recycling efforts it has become the icon for recycling as a whole. No other material has an identity so closely associated with recycling, as does aluminum.

“There are tremendous social, economic and environmental benefits to recycling aluminum cans and we encourage consumers to contribute to a sustainable environment by purchasing and recycling aluminum cans,” stated Sturgell.

Among the reasons recycling aluminum cans makes sense is that it saves energy. Recycling just forty-eight aluminum beverage cans (or eight six packs) saves the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. During 2002, Americans recycled enough aluminum cans to conserve the energy equivalent of over 15 million barrels of crude oil. If all the aluminum cans produced had been returned and recycled in 2002, the energy savings would have doubled to 30 million barrels.

The aluminum and can industries remain committed to recycling. Last year, the industries jointly created the Aluminum Can Council to explore and implement programs to increase consumer recycling. “The ACC recognizes the value and importance of recycling and has committed significant time and resources to ensure the aluminum can remains the most recycled beverage package,” said Robert Budway, president of CMI.

“Among the programs underway by the ACC are: a radio advertising campaign promoting the can’s recyclability; a test project to support and grow curbside recycling participation; and educational programs for school children. There are additional projects under development,” Budway said.

Robin Wiener, president of ISRI, noted that the recycling process is highly energy efficient. “The all-aluminum beverage can also is an outstanding example of how ISRI’s ‘Design for Recycling’ initiative, coupled with commercial returns, has benefited all segments of society year after year.”

Nearly 54% of the 101 billion aluminum beverage cans produced in 2002 were recovered last year and recycled in operations like this one across the country.The aluminum can is the recycling leader in the U.S. and has been for more than 20 years. More than 100.8 billion cans were produced in 2002, with 53.8 billion aluminum cans recycled—some 1.59 billion pounds. For 21 out of 22 years the rate has exceeded 50 percent.

While over half of America’s aluminum beverage cans are being recycled, more than one million tons of aluminum containers and packaging - including billions of beverage containers, TV dinner trays, aluminum foil - are thrown away each year. That’s an alarming figure, because aluminum lying in our landfills will be there for 200 years or more.

Although aluminum is less than one percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste stream, it remains one of the most valuable recyclable materials. While aluminum beverage cans remain the most recycled item in the U.S., other types of aluminum scrap, such as siding, gutters, storm window frames and lawn furniture, can also be recycled. With its high market value, aluminum provides the necessary economic incentive to recycle.

Recycled materials, such as aluminum, also provide manufacturers with valuable feedstock. Nearly 55 percent of a new aluminum can is made from recycled aluminum. When the first all-aluminum beverage can appeared in 1963, it took 5 years for the recycling of them to commence. One million pounds of aluminum cans were recovered in 1968, an amount that is melted in about four hours today.

Here are some more facts about aluminum:

•Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.
•Mined from bauxite, aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth.
•Twenty years ago it took 19 aluminum cans to make one pound, but today, aluminum beverage cans are thinner and lighter, requiring 29 cans to make a pound.
•In 1994, Americans recycled 64.7 billion aluminum cans, two billion more than in 1993.
•Every minute of every day, nearly 125,000 aluminum cans are recycled.
•Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume of gasoline.
•Twenty recycled cans are made with the energy needed to produce one can from virgin ore.
•Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours, or to power a television for three hours.

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