Modern recycling

By Julie Sammarco

June 2011 - Recycling aluminum today isn’t just about cans. “It’s more complicated than that,” says Steve Gardner, vice president of communications at The Aluminum Association, Arlington, Va.

With a rising amount of aluminum being used in the electronics industry, more and more of it is in the hands of consumers and producers and will be available for recycling, which might lead to an increase in recycling demand in the United States.

But there’s a problem. Although most aluminum is recycled, many U.S. municipalities across the country don’t have the financial capabilities to create and support programs that make recycling easy for consumers.

Roughly 50 percent of aluminum used in the making of electronics, such as TVs, cell phones, iPads, iPods and computer casings, is recycled. Although the largest amount of aluminum is used in the production of cans, it continues to be popular in electronics for its lightweight, reusable and nontoxic  characteristics. This allows engineers to create new shapes, colors and styles to satisfy consumers’ constantly changing needs while helping preserve our natural resources and reduce environmental impact.

To make recycling easier for American consumers, who have approximately 24 electronics per household, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, state and local governments are implementing take-back programs. Many computer, TV and cell phone manufacturers either will buy old products or recycle them to help manage end-of-life electronics. To-date about 20 states have enacted legislation to manage take-back programs, but it’s not widespread.

Similarly, 58.1 percent, the highest rate in 11 years, of all aluminum beverage cans are being recycled. Although this is a step forward, Gardner says much more will need to happen for this rate to increase. “Since the great recession, not many cities and towns can afford to support out-of-home recycling,” he says. “A lot of people can manage recycling at home, but once they’re out of the house, the convenience factor greatly diminishes.” He goes on to explain how the technology to manage recycling simply isn’t an option for some cities, especially in the current economic climate.<p>
“In Texas there’s a town that charges its residents for every product or material thrown in the trash that could have been recycled,” he says. “While this promotes recycling greatly—it makes people look for things to throw in the recycling bin because they don’t want to get charged for it—it also requires a great deal of money. To do this kind of operation, you need weighing equipment, infrastructure for billing, bins for everyone’s homes. It’s a lot.”

There are mixture of approaches and abilities for recycling, and Gardner plans to continue working on increasing aluminum recycling rates and encourages others to do their part. The Aluminum Association has set a goal to reach a 75 percent recycling rate for used beverage cans by 2015. Although he admits it will be a challenge to achieve, he says it’s critical. “We need to be aggressive about reaching that goal,” he says. “If you don’t set challenging goals, you don’t work hard, you don’t have to think creatively.” MM

Facts about aluminum recycling

  • Discovered in the 1820s, aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth.
  • According to the EPA, 50.7 percent of aluminum cans were recycled in 2009.
  • A used aluminum can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.
  • Aluminum is a durable and sustainable metal: Two-thirds of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today.
  • Every minute, an average of 113,204 aluminum cans are recycled.
  • Making new aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy than using virgin materials.
  • Twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.
  • Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run a television for three hours.
  • Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume in gasoline.
  • In 1972, one pound of aluminum cans was equivalent to about 22 empty cans. Due to advanced technology using less material and increasing the durability of aluminum cans, as of 2002, one pound of aluminum cans is equivalent to about 34 empty cans.
  • The average employee consumes 2.5 beverages each day while at work.
  • An empty aluminum can is worth about one cent.
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