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Aluminum Cans:
the Ultimate in Recycling

by Tom Watson
Seattle Times, March 9, 2012

Nearly 60 percent of aluminum beverage cans are recycled,
which is good, but we can still do better.

When you drink a cold beverage from an aluminum can, you don't just satisfy your thirst. You also hold the potential and the challenge of recycling right there in your hand.

Nearly 60 percent of aluminum beverage cans get recycled, more than double the recycling rate for any other beverage container. Because aluminum cans are so perfectly suited for recycling, many aluminum-industry leaders and environmental advocates believe the recycling rate should be even higher.

Q: What makes aluminum cans so recyclable?

A: When many materials are recycled, they actually get "down-cycled," or turned into a product or packaging of less value than the original item. Aluminum cans, however, can be recycled an infinite number of times into new cans.

By using beverage cans and other recycled aluminum as a feedstock, the aluminum industry conserves resources, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and saves money. When recycled aluminum isn't used, bauxite ore must be mined to make new aluminum.

Q: How important are aluminum cans in the recycling world?

A: With its long-term record of financial and environmental success, aluminum recycling sets a shiny example for other industries. Because aluminum has such a high relative value, the collection of aluminum cans often helps subsidize the recycling collection of other materials including glass, plastic and paper.

Aluminum recycling supports local jobs at recycling buyback centers and elsewhere. Many charitable organizations rely on aluminum-can collection drives for fundraising, and some low-income people depend on money they make collecting cans.

Q: So how much are aluminum cans worth these days?

A: Most Seattle-area buyback centers currently pay 40 to 48 cents per pound for aluminum cans. Prices fluctuate depending on the commodity market, and if you bring in large quantities of cans you usually get a slightly higher price. Typically about 34 used aluminum cans make up one pound.

Q: Didn't aluminum cans used to be heavier?

A: With new technology, can manufacturers have learned how to make cans using much less aluminum. In 1972, only 22 used aluminum cans equaled one pound. The light weight of aluminum has always been an environmental advantage, since less energy is required to ship aluminum cans compared with heavier glass bottles, for example.

Q: Do aluminum cans have any environmental negatives?

A: The use of the chemical BPA (bisphenol A) as a coating on the inside of most aluminum beverage cans has raised concerns. Because BPA is also used as a coating in nearly all steel food cans and in other products, this issue extends well beyond the aluminum-can industry.

Numerous studies have linked BPA to cancer and other major health risks. Companies using BPA say no firm evidence exists of negative effects from BPA, and that no viable alternatives are presently available for can coatings.

Q: I've always wondered, can I also recycle aluminum foil and trays?

A: In Seattle and most other area communities, you can put clean aluminum foil, trays used for food packaging, and pie pans in your home-recycling cart. Leave the foil mostly flat, not wadded up. Check with your recycling-collection program if you're not sure they accept these items. Reuse them first if you can, and if they are dirty, put them in the garbage.

Some local recycling buyback centers also accept clean aluminum foil and trays, but might not pay for them. Foil uses a different aluminum alloy than cans, so it is recycled separately.

The first aluminum cans appeared 50 years ago, and since then the aluminum beverage can has become an American icon and a proud symbol of recycling.

The aluminum industry wants more recycled aluminum, with some industry officials calling for a 20 percent increase in the recycling rate for aluminum cans, which would raise it to a stellar 80 percent. As consumers, we should respond by saying, "Yes, we can."

Related Pages:
Airlines Toss Enough Cans Each Year to Build Fleet of Airliners, Says Study by Staff,, 12/15/06
Don't Can It by The Earth Works Group, The Recycler's Handbook, 1990

Feedstock ... I did a double take (reread) as well ... awkwardly referencing feeding the can recycling-industrial machine.

Was an insightful article ... pushing higher levels of recycling incrementally lowers production costs ... less need at the mining level.


Feedstock is a term in materials processing that basically means the original ingredients. It's used in lots of industries, really - recycling, oil refining, plastic manufacturing, medicine production.

By the way, one piece of trivia I didn't see in the article is that it takes roughly 20 times as much energy to make an aluminum product from raw ore as it does to make it by recycling metal.

That's the main reason why it recycles for a relatively high price.

I remember having a couple weekend gigs in high school helping demolish old mobile homes with aluminum siding. Hauling away the siding was basically bonus pay. We got $200-300 worth of it per home. At today's prices, it would be around $400.

Magnolia reader:
I had heard that it takes an enormous amount of energy to produce aluminum, a fact I didn't read in the "Aluminum Cans" article. I would think this would be the number one reason to recycle aluminum, seeing that everyone is so concerned about their carbon footprint. With a quick look on line I pulled up these two interesting pieces of information:

"The immense amounts of power required to produce aluminum is the reason why aluminum plants are almost always located in areas where affordable electrical power is readily available. Some experts maintain that one percent of all the energy used in the United States is used in the making of aluminum."

"Aluminum is formed at about 900 °C, but once formed has a melting point of only 660 °C. In some smelters this spare heat is used to melt recycled metal, which is then blended with the new metal. Recycled metal requires only 5 per cent of the energy required to make new metal. Blending recycled metal with new metal allows considerable energy savings, as well as the efficient use of the extra heat available. When it comes to quality, there is no difference between primary metal and recycled metal."

Wilbur the Cat:
I'm still shocked by the number of people who really don't care, they just toss everything in the trash, no recycling separation at all.

I recycle everything and it takes very little effort. The only thing I let slip by are steel cans. We have a waste to energy plant here in Spokane, so anything made of steel gets caught by big magnets automatically.

Other than that, I recycle glass, plastic, paper, etc. Maybe I balance out the slobs who do nothing except toss everything in the trash. To bad there isn't a way to fine them or bill them more for trash pickup.

Tom Watson is project manager for King County's Recycling and Environmental Services.
Aluminum Cans: the Ultimate in Recycling
Seattle Times, March 9, 2012

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