Why Aluminum is the #1 Recyclable Material for the Economy and the Environment
Easily reusable, endlessly recyclable, an introduction to the benefits of aluminum the “Miracle Metal”
Aluminum is an integral part of our modern world. Aluminum is everywhere and is often in unsuspecting places. Multiple industries see this unique metal and its nearly infinite potential for reuse as a way to match the needs of our corporations, governments and the earth’s environment as they look to move into a circular, sustainable future.
To quote the Aluminum Association: “Aluminum is truly the metal of modern life” and is the “Miracle Metal.”
Lightweight and durable, aluminum is a friend of the transportation industry. It is part of their trucks and the cargo of drinks they may be hauling. A newly released report by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), The Aluminum Can Advantage Key Sustainability Performance Indicators, shows that aluminum cans continue to outperform competitive packaging types on a number of key sustainability metrics, including:
- Industry Recycling Rate
- Consumer Recycling Rate
- Recycled Content
- Value of Material
Yes, studies show that aluminum was found to be the most sustainable beverage packaging today.
Graph source: www.CanCentral.com
Aluminum carries immense versatility by being durable, increasing safety, yet lightweight enough to increase fuel efficiency. Where would air and space travel be without aluminum? From the Wright Brothers’ aluminum engine for their first flight to today’s laptops, smartphones, and tablets, aluminum is there allowing the Magic Metal to be recycled infinitely.
Image source: Air and Space. Wright Brothers’ Aluminum Engine.
Reuse, Recycling, and Aluminum’s many benefits
Aluminum has been recycled for one hundred years. Waste not; want not is still as true as it has always been. We can only hope the Throwaway Society will be seeing its final days.
Aluminum, with 75% that was ever produced still in active use today, is absolutely amazing when you think about it. Even the Washington Monument has had 100 ounces of this durable metal, aluminum, sitting above the nation’s capital since 1884.
It’s important to recycle aluminum because in reality virgin or primary aluminum processing is a pretty dirty business. Bauxite gets strip-mined, crushed, washed and refined into alumina before it is smelted. The process creates a caustic mud that can contaminate both surface and groundwater. Then the smelting process releases sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide, two key elements in the creation of smog and acid rain. We’ve been fighting smog and acid rain for a long time and contaminating our surface and groundwater seems to be an unending battle.
Aluminum’s recyclability is a saving grace from the dirty side of primary aluminum processing. Recycling aluminum saves 90% to 95% of the energy needed to make aluminum from bauxite ore according to studies by the Aluminum Association. Example: One pound of aluminum cans if recycled can save about 7 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. Or just to make one can from scratch in the primary process from bauxite, you could have made 20 recycled cans.
Aluminum is used in a large range of industries. As noted above, many we might not be aware of include:
- consumer goods manufacturing
- restaurant/foodservice industry
- hospitality industry
- industrial and municipal LED lighting
The many benefits of aluminum and why it’s a magic metal for many industries:
- infinitely recyclable
- conductor of heat
- conductor of electricity
We want to save our environment. We want to save our health and yet, we Americans throw away $1 billion cans of aluminum each year. Knowing that Aluminum can be recycled infinitely, you can see the massive opportunity to recover even more aluminum for the economy and our environment. The EPA estimated that 1.8 million tons of aluminum went to landfills in 2015. Are we going to just call this lost opportunity? Or shouldn’t we be looking for a fix to excavate this valuable material?
Recyclability of Aluminum:
Did you know Aluminum is one of the only materials in the consumer and industrial waste stream that more than pays for its own recycling expenses? Those aluminum beverage containers, once emptied, quickly turn right into another finished product of the exact same quality that head right back to store shelves in 3 months or less.
Graph source: www.CanCentral.com
This makes aluminum beverage containers major support for the recycling industry and those working in this essential industry. According to the U.S. Recycling Economic Information (REI), the U.S. recycling industry employed 1.25 million people in more than 56,000 reuse and recycling establishments in the U.S. Plus, the full aluminum industry contributes $174 Billion to the U.S. Economy (1% of GDP).
Graph source: www.CanCentral.com
Aluminum facts from Action Recycling Center:
- It takes 31.8 12 fluid ounce aluminum cans to equal one pound
- Recycling just one aluminum can save enough energy to power a T.V. for 3 hours
- Current energy saved in one year from recycling aluminum cans in the USA would light the entire city of Denver, CO for more than 10 years
- The energy saved in one year from recycled cans is equivalent to 20 million barrels of oil or 12 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity
- The aluminum beverage can returns to the grocer’s shelf as a new product in as little as 90 days after collection, smelting, rolling, manufacturing and distribution
Companies that are taking Aluminum recycling to the next level
There are some prominent companies taking advantage of aluminum's recyclability, cost savings, and positive environmental impacts. These are just a few examples of how simplicity and logic are being implemented into manufacturing by using, reusing, and recycling aluminum.
Ford Motor Company recycles tons of aluminum scraps
Ford decided to redesign three factories' recycling system in order to close the loop on its supply chain and help save 5 million pounds of aluminum, a 23% increase in the company's recycling count while using 90% less energy through the recycling process. The system will collect scrap metal from the production of auto parts, then recycle it and turn it right back around for reprocessing.
Before this initiative, $300 worth of aluminum was required to build each new F-150 truck. The metal saved will be enough to build 37,000 F-series truck bodies a month.
Ford is to cut 500,000 metric tons of carbon emissions by 2022. They will be looking to reduce waste, water, and energy use with their suppliers as well.
Sounds like they could be in for a nice payday just from a simple closing and tightening of the loop in the recycling system.
Apple, Inc. recycles aluminum components
In 2015, Apple, Inc. collected about 90 million pounds of e-waste, diverting it from landfills. They collected gold, plastic, steel, glass, copper and other materials. However, out of all that material, only aluminum can be recycled over and over with no deterioration in its material properties.
Apple, Inc. also took the step of ensuring that the smelting process was done by hydroelectric power and halted the use of plants using fossil fuel. The MacBook Air and Mac mini enclosures are made from 100% recycled aluminum.
“At Apple, we are committed to building groundbreaking products and services with the mission to leave our world better than we found it.” - Lisa Jackson, Vice President, Environment, Policy & Social Initiatives
Municipalities: San Francisco and SFO International Airport goes zero-waste
Zero-Waste means reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting with virtually nothing going to landfill or incineration. A noble cause and one that the city is working hard to achieve. The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) took a cue from its home city and has committed to Zero Waste. A herculean task, but they have done a good job with their homework and due diligence. They are working towards becoming a Closed-Loop Circular Campus. The goal is to control all material inputs in order to maximize recycling and recovery efforts and minimize waste materials generated onsite. SFO has an aggressive plan to reduce single-use disposable plastics by transitioning to reusable, compostable, and recyclable alternatives at SFO restaurants, cafes, newsstands, airline lounges, and vending machines. By reducing plastic and increasing levels of aluminum, it’s easier for the sorting facility to do their job efficiently and thus send less material to landfills.
In addition to SFO’s new bottled water policy that eliminates plastic in favor of reusable, aluminum, and glass solutions, the next step of the zero waste program includes:
- All prepared food and beverages are served with reusable or BPI-certified compostable foodservice ware (cups, to-go containers, cutlery, etc.) with no fluorinated chemicals
- Straws are only available upon request.
- Foodservice ware accessories (lids, cutlery, stir sticks) are only available at self-service kiosks or upon request
- Reusable cups are utilized at events with more than 100 attendees
- Businesses and government can expect to conserve natural resources, protect the environment and maybe even save some money
“PATHWATER offers a natural solution to plastic water bottles. PATHWATER’s purified water comes in an intentionally aluminum bottle that is refillable. When we founded the company we knew key insights about aluminum, its value, and its endless recyclability. We took the layers of knowledge about sustainability and aimed to create the ultimate, most environmental version of bottled water to combat the plastic crisis. Combining these three factors was key to the equation: 1) reusability, 2) locally sourced water, and of course 3) aluminum, as the packaging material. Aluminum offers the ability for a sturdy, durable bottle that can last and last” Ali Orabi, PATHWATER co-founder.
Unlike aluminum cans and bottles which are graded for single-use, the PATHWATER bottle is intentionally thick and comes equipped with a BPA free liner to offer endless reusability. In fact, surveyed PATHWATER customers report using their bottle 10+ times on average. The simplicity and brilliance of this one bottle are making waves across many organizations, schools and universities, corporate campuses, and also 20+ SFO airport shops, who are seamlessly replacing plastic bottles. This includes Napa Farms which has co-branded bottles with PATHWATER, exemplifying their commitment to sustainable solutions, local support of the SFO zero-waste initiative.
PATHWATER’s goal is to replace all those plastic water bottles that seem to be tossed across the planet; polluting our streets and streams and floating into our oceans creating a nightmare around the world. And this mission is what we call REFILL NOT LANDFILL.
While nothing is perfect and sustainability lends itself to being a spectrum, aluminum is proof that we can and have done better, when it comes to closing the loop on waste. Aluminum is already excelling beyond any beverage material as the most recyclable and is proving to be a great source for creating reusable water bottles. Companies that leverage aluminum’s immense potential are seeing rates decline for pollution, energy usage, waste, health issues, and money waste. Aluminum is a natural fit for a Circular Economy and the wave of the future.
Companies like Ford are seeing competitive advantages by recycling the various grades of aluminum in their vehicles to the point where they are investing in expensive aluminum recycling plants to keep the precious metal in extremely localized circulation. Companies like PATHWATER are finding innovative ways to help businesses, governments, and individuals pursue their instinct to clean up the planet. Studies brought the team to aluminum as a solution to the mess they saw on local beaches and research brought them to understand just how destructive plastic water bottles are to the environment. Aluminum continues to prove that material, while not perfect, can be the answer to intelligent business and ecological decisions moving toward a more sustainable future.
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