Want to Help Reduce PFC Emissions? Recycle Those Cans

Less than half of all aluminum cans are currently recycled in the U.S.

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Can being placed in can bank in the United Kingdom. Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Can being placed in can bank in the United Kingdom. Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Aluminum, unlike plastic, is infinitely recyclable. An aluminum can you drink from today may have been a different aluminum can just months ago and, if continually recycled, could be used to make a can 20 years from now.

“That’s your grandchild’s aluminum,” Jerry Marks, a former research manager for Alcoa said, recalling how he chastises his grandchildren whenever he sees them tossing aluminum cans in the trash. “You can’t be throwing that away.” 

Aluminum is sometimes called “frozen electricity” because so much power is required to smelt, or refine, alumina into aluminum. Recycled aluminum doesn’t require smelting and uses only 5 percent of the amount of electricity as “primary” aluminum, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Progress in Materials Science. What’s more, melting aluminum for reuse doesn’t emit any perfluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years. 

Related: Why American Aluminum Plants Emit Far More Climate Pollution Than Some of Their Counterparts Abroad

Less than half of all aluminum cans, some 45 percent, are recycled in the U.S. today, according to a 2021 report by industry groups the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute. This compares with just 20 percent for plastic bottles, which are typically recycled into other products such as carpet or textiles that are less likely to be recycled at the end of their useful lives, according to the report. 

However, some states do a better job at recycling aluminum cans than others. Currently 10 states place deposits on cans and bottles that can be redeemed when the container is recycled. States with such programs recycle aluminum cans at a rate more than twice that of states without deposit programs, Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability at the Can Manufacturers Institute, said.

Last year, the Institute, a trade association of U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of metal cans, and the Aluminum Association, which represents producers of primary aluminum and recycled aluminum, set a target of recycling 70 percent of all aluminum cans in the U.S. by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050. 

“The only way we’re going to achieve those targets is with new, well-designed deposit systems,” Breen said. 

Ten additional states have introduced recycling deposit bills this year and Breen said he anticipates a similar bill will be introduced at the federal level in 2023. Yet similar bills have been introduced in the past without becoming law. The last time a so-called “bottle bill” passed was in Hawaii in 2002. Historically, the beverage industry opposed such bills, which they viewed as an unfair tax. However, such opposition is beginning to change, Breen said. 

“Beverage brands have set recycling and recycled content targets and state governments have set recycled content minimums, none of which will be achieved without significantly higher recycling rates,” he said. “I think people are taking a more serious look at this than in the past.” 

Aluminum use in the U.S. is expected to continue to grow in the coming years and decades as more vehicles, like Ford’s F-150 and the all-electric F-150 Lightning are made with entirely aluminum bodies. The strong, lightweight metal offsets the increased weight of additional batteries in all-electric vehicles while helping to decrease a vehicle’s energy needs. 

Recycled aluminum makes up 80 percent of U.S. aluminum production, according to the Aluminum Association. While recycled aluminum won’t be able to provide all of our aluminum needs, each can that is recycled is one less can that comes from smelting. 

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