Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment? Part 3: Aluminum

This is part 3 of our “Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment” series and today we are going to talk about recycling aluminum. In the previous two articles I have shown that although recycling is definitely a good thing, in some cases, as in the case of plastics, recycling actually increases plastic usage and plastic waste.

When it comes to aluminum, this is an entirely different story as aluminum is 100% recyclable and re-enters the product stream in approximately 6 weeks. Unlike plastics, who’s chemical bond weakens each time it is remelted, aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times making it a true recycled material. So, by throwing your aluminum cans into the recycling bin, you are contributing to a process that conserves natural resources and saves money compared to manufacturing cans from virgin materials.

Recycling aluminum into new ingots to be used for manufacturing takes less than 5% of the energy it takes to manufacture aluminum from bauxite ore. It only requires melting down the recycled aluminum and removing impurities, which is much less energy intensive than mining bauxite and refining it into alumina to be used to create aluminum. In fact, for every pound of recycled aluminum the industry uses, it saves over 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity it saves 4.5 pounds of bauxite ore from being strip-mined. To put it in human terms, by recycling one aluminum can you can save enough energy to light a 25 Watt CFL bulb for over 14 hours.

Currently Americans are recycling approximately 45% of all aluminum beverage cans and 36% of aluminum found in containers and packaging. Fortunately, the largest concentration of domestic aluminum use falls in these markets, so the individual has much more control over the end results than manufacturing industries. Unfortunately, the demand for recovered aluminum is shrinking because of an increased use of plastics in beverage bottles over other packaging applications. Hopefully the demand for recovered aluminum will increase again because of the new CAFE mpg standards, which will require auto makers to use lighter materials to achieve higher efficiencies in their vehicles.

To answer the questions of whether recycling is better for the environment when it comes to aluminum, the answer is absolutely yes. However, it does not stop there, if you really want to make a difference, try to NOT buy plastic beverage containers and opt for the aluminum containers instead and then recycle the aluminum container. This will not only reduce the use of virgin aluminum, but it will reduce the use of oil that is used to produce the plastic container which ultimately ends up in a landfill regardless of whether or not you recycle it. Remember, aluminum is 100% recyclable and can be continually recycled an infinite number of times and plastic is not and will generally be recycled 1 or 2 times before it is discarded.

Stay tuned for Part 4: Glass, coming soon…

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