Aluminum Can Recycling Nudges Upward in the US… Barely

58 percent of all cans recycled last year in the U.S., But…

Aluminum can recycling rates in the U.S. peaked at over 65 percent in 1994. At the time, the country was a world leader in the category. Times have changed.

In 2008, when the U.S. aluminum can recycling rate was at 54 percent and heading still downward, an aluminum industry trade group adopted the goal of getting to a 75 percent aluminum can recycling rate by 2015. Since then, can recycling rates have only slowly been nudging upward — 58 percent of all cans sold in the U.S. were recycled last year, the most in a decade — and the U.S. aluminum industry is not only in danger of falling well short of its 2015 goal, if current trends continue, the U.S. may end up plateauing at around 60 percent for some time.

Unlike plastic bottles, aluminum cans may be remade into stock for new cans virtually indefinitely and at much lower costs than using virgin stock. Making aluminum from recycled cans consumes 97 percent less energy than making it from bauxite. Substantially lighter than glass bottles, aluminum cans are increasingly attractive to producers who see the giant potential savings in shipping costs.

Despite obvious advantages, aluminum can recycling in the U.S. and parts of Europe remain surprisingly low, especially as compared to countries like Japan, where aluminum can recycling tops 92 percent, and Brazil, where officials say the goal of recycling all aluminum cans is not far out of reach.

Experts point to a number of factors that explain the variance in aluminum recycling rates the including the falling cost of bauxite, energy prices, access to the recycling system, recycling laws, cultural and societal norms, as well as unique economic conditions in the given country. In Brazil, for example, where aluminum cans emerged well before the country’s big economic growth spurt of the 1990s and beyond, as many as 180,000 people now earn their living by collecting cans daily, forming an informal recycling network that has not developed to the same scale in the U.S. and Europe.

Article by Timothy Hurst, appearing courtesy Earth & Industry.

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