It's In the Can

August 14, 1998

By Michael Jessen

The aluminum can that holds your soda or beer may be just a light-weight packaging material to you, but it's really a package of energy.

Making aluminum cans from recycled cans uses 95% less energy than making aluminum from virgin materials. That's what makes the aluminum can the most valuable of all household recyclables.

While newspaper can be sold for 4.6 cents a pound, magazines 2.6 cents a pound, glass 2.3 cents a pound, and tin cans 1.6 cents a pound, aluminum cans weigh in at a mighty 48 cents a pound in U.S. funds!

The making of aluminum clearly illustrates how much energy and resources are used in the production of everyday items, like the aluminum can. Producing one ton of aluminum from virgin materials requires 8,766 pounds of bauxite, 1,020 pounds of petroleum coke, 966 pounds of soda ash, 327 pounds of pitch, 238 pounds of lime and 197 million BTU's of energy.

Aluminum production also clearly demonstrates how much pollution and waste is created in the making of everyday items. During production of one ton of aluminum from virgin materials, 3,290 pounds of red mud are left over, as well as 81 pounds of air pollutants and 789 pounds of solid waste. Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the air and water pollution created by virgin aluminum production.

But it is the energy statistics that stagger the imagination. If you throw away two aluminum cans, you waste more energy than is used daily by each of a billion human beings who live in poorer countries.

If you toss one aluminum can out your car window, you waste as much energy as if you'd filled the same can half full of gasoline and poured it onto the ground.

The energy saved from one recycled aluminum can will operate a television set for three hours.

Although many people either recycle their aluminum cans or return them to depots for deposit refunds, many aluminum cans still end up in the dump. Of 100 billion aluminum cans manufactured in the U.S. in 1997, only 66.8 billion were recycled. The recycling rate for aluminum cans of 66.5 percent is respectable when compared to rates for other materials, but it is poor when one considers how much energy and resources are used in can manufacture.

Aluminum is the only packaging material that covers its own cost of collection in recycling programs which is why recyclers would rather you give the cans to them instead than returning them to industry-operated refund depots. The high value of aluminum helps finance the recovery of other less valuable materials like newspapers, magazines, glass bottles, and tin cans.

To maximize the return on used aluminum beverage cans and to enhance the efficiency of the recycling process, certain guidelines should be followed to ensure quality.

Your cans should be dry and free of moisture. Rain or left-over soda or beer reduces the recovery efficiency of the can when melted. Moisture is also a serious safety hazard at the scrap processing facility as severe steam explosions can occur when wet scrap is melted.

Your cans should be free of dirt and any other foreign metals or materials. (Like don't put your cigarette butts in your cans!) Even small amounts of foreign materials can prevent used cans from being recycled back into new cans.

Your cans should also be free of paper, wood , and plastic which can severely damage equipment at processing plants and put lives at risk. Aluminum food cans may be recycled with the used beverage cans, but must first be freed of food residue and paper labels. Do not recycle any other aluminum scrap with your cans. Beverage cans made of steel bodies with aluminum tops should be recycled with tin cans, not aluminum cans.

The high value of the aluminum can means no one should ever put one of these in the garbage.

Recycle these bundles of energy; you can do it!

TRASH TIP - The aluminum can you recycle today will likely reappear on a store shelf within 90 days.

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