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Recycle To Save Energy–The Sooner The Better

Recycling rates in the U.S. are low and getting lower. The U.S., by far the world’s biggest consumer of aluminum cans, lags behind other industrialized nations in the percentage of these cans that we recycle. This is despite the fact that the number of cans sold is fairly constant.

If we could recover and recycle 75% of the aluminum cans being currently tossed into landfills–600,000 metric tons of aluminum–we could save 1286 megawatts of generated electricity. That’s the amount produced by two coal fired power plants, and consumed by two aluminum plants. Replacing this production with recycling would keep 11.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being generated and released into the atmosphere.

All by just recycling, instead of throwing away, one of the most successful packaging solutions ever devised – the aluminum beverage can.

Recycling aluminum has always been a sustainable practice because it saves landfill space. Even more important in today’s environment, recycling also saves energy. In fact, because of the way aluminum is made and the ease with which you can recycle it, recycling saves a lot of energy…which makes recycling an important component of climate change action and a sound economic practice as well.

“Infinite” recyclability

Since the modern process for producing aluminum was developed by Alcoa founder Charles Martin Hall in 1886, over 70% of all the virgin aluminum ever made remains in use. That’s because aluminum can be infinitely recycled – a piece of aluminum scrap can often be turned back into the same product, or a very similar product, to that from which it originated, with virtually no material loss in the process. Aluminum truly can be a model for sustainability in heavy industry.

95% energy savings

Scrap usage is also driven by economics. Recycling aluminum scrap saves enormous quantities of energy, otherwise required to make virgin aluminum. Recycling a ton of aluminum uses just 5% of the energy required to make virgin metal. Every ton of recycled aluminum that Alcoa uses saves about 14,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the average American household consumes 920 kilowatts of electricity per month. Consequently, using 1 ton of recycled aluminum as opposed to 1 ton of virgin aluminum would power an American household for over 15 months.

This comparison is one that the average American can relate to. The timing also couldn’t be better for pointing it out. There isn’t anyone in this country who has not felt the effect of the massive increase in energy costs in the past year. Industries like Alcoa feel it too. It stands to reason that IF we can reduce energy consumption by recycling more, we can remove some of the demand pull that is causing energy prices to rise. And with much of the energy in the U.S. still coming from fossil fuel generation, we can move toward a reduced national carbon footprint as well.

So why aren’t we doing it more?

Despite the compelling energy savings that accrue from recycling aluminum, we Americans are not realizing our recycling potential. Currently, just over 50% of the aluminum beverage cans consumed in this country are being recycled. This is well below world standards:

  • Brazil 94.4%
  • Japan 90.9 %
  • Germany 89 %
  • Global Average 63%
  • Western Europe 57.7%

The reasons for the malaise in our recycling rates are complex: bad behavior (we would rather dispose than recycle or reuse); a lack of convenient recycling options at home, office or other public venues; local governments lacking funding to provide recycling infrastructure; and, at least until recently, some apathy about the green movement.

Alcoa began the can recycling industry in the 1970s shortly after the aluminum can was introduced, and has been able to recycle 30 billion cans, equaling nearly half a million tons of aluminum, since then. That sounds like a lot — and it is — but it’s just 30% of the total number of new cans shipped by the industry each year.

Certainly, for everyone involved, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The target: 75% by 2015

In a recent call to action, I issued a challenge for Alcoa, “to raise recycling rates from the current 52% to 75% by 2015.”

That’s a big challenge…equating to capturing another 400,000 tons/year of aluminum cans. However, it’s a goal that we can and must achieve if we want more sustainability in our industry. It’s also a vital contribution that the aluminum industry can make towards comprehensive energy conservation.

Beyond aluminum

While Alcoa is an aluminum company, we recognize that there are other valuable materials that can be recycled, affording even more substantial energy savings.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does annual solid waste characterization studies that are revealing about our wasteful habits as Americans.

In 2006, we disposed of over 250 million tons of solid waste. In that massive pile, we had:

alcoa_april.jpg

Clearly, besides aluminum…there are a lot of kilowatts and barrels of oil waiting to be saved through a comprehensive approach to recycling.

Whether it’s aluminum beverage cans, telephone books and newspapers, or plastic shopping bags, recycling has a common and vital benefit: energy conservation. And it’s one that can resonate with the average American.

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