All You Need to Know About Aluminum Recycling

What does the soda you’re drinking, the car you’re driving, the cell phone you’re texting with- hey! Don’t text and drive! – All have in common?

The soda can, your car body, the casing of your phone, are all made partially or entirely of aluminum. In fact, we depend upon aluminum for almost everything.

Why is this? Well here are a few things you didn’t know about Aluminum.

  • It is extraordinarily malleable. This allows it to take many shapes. Just imagine the many ways you can bend and fold aluminum foil.
  • It has excellent electrical and thermal conductivity. This makes it a top choice for electronic and heating applications.
  • It has a very low density, and is also geometrically rigid. This means it is a lightweight structural alternative to other materials such as iron.

To make matters even better, aluminum is the third-most abundant element within the earth’s crust behind only oxygen and silicon. Not to mention, aluminum does look impressive with its silvery hue.

But, nothing is perfect.

Aluminum, like most metals, is never found in pure metallic form in nature. When was the last time you stumbled upon a solid hunk of aluminum sticking out of the ground (that wasn’t trash.) More often than not, aluminum is found in the form of Bauxite, a reddish brown rock primarily formed from aluminum and oxygen in various ionic variations.

To extract aluminum from the bauxite requires an energy intensive process known as the Bayer process. However, the Bayer process only produces aluminum oxides from the bauxite. To get pure aluminum, a second energy intensive process called the Hall-Heroult process is used to break apart the aluminum oxides. As you can tell, isolating pure aluminum requires a massive amount of electricity, and as a consequence, it also produces a ton of greenhouse gasses.

When all is said and done, the aluminum manufacturing industry accounts for nearly 1% of the total electrical use in the United States every year. That is 198 terawatt hours, or roughly the equivalent of running the entire state of New York for 4 months.

The Device

A recycling bin.

It’s really that easy. Recycling is something everyone knows is good for the environment, and you probably even have a recycling bin in your kitchen. But it’s easy to be lazy about it. Remember that barbeque party where everyone just threw their cans, cups and plates into the big black garbage bag because that was easiest thing to do with them? Don’t let these things happen.

If nothing else, at least make the effort to recycle the aluminum.

Recycling aluminum, although maybe slightly inconvenient for an individual, saves 95% of the electricity required to mine the aluminum raw.

Think about if you got a 95% raise, or got 95% more vacation. It’s like a 2-for-1 deal in the recycling department.

For those who are technically inclined, recycling aluminum requires much less energy because the Hall-Heroult process is no longer required. The aluminum has already been separated from the oxides, and consequentially, to recycle it only requires some chemical cleaning and thermal melting.

To make matters even better, the recycling process is FAST. An aluminum can can be recycled, converted for 95% of its mass back into fresh aluminum, and put back on the shelves in a new bottle in as few as 60 days. That’s far less time than the whole production phase takes.

Savings

The direct economic gains of recycling your aluminum are not immediately apparent. Even in the states where recycling deposits are paid, the cents do not add up readily.

However, there are many other non-financial savings. For instance, a given aluminum can (which weighs around a half ounce) correlates to roughly .16 pounds of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. Most of this CO2 comes from the creation phase. By recycling, we can reduce roughly 70% of these CO2 emissions. This reduction is equivalent to .11 pounds of CO2 per can.

Residential

Although there is huge variability in the amount of cans consumed per household, let us say that a given family of four drinks roughly 100 cans per week. This is a fairly conservative estimate considering all of the things aluminum cans are used for. However, even with this conservative estimate, the family would reduce around 11 pounds of CO2 emissions per week by recycling. Not too shabby for simply tossing the cans in the correct receptacle.

Business

As is often common with commercial goods, the scaling factor for businesses depends upon the size. However, it should be noted that businesses and the office workplace provide an excellent point source for aluminum recycling. It is incredibly easy to get a recycling bin set up at work and most waste management firms will be happy to provide the necessary service. Simply putting up a recycling bin at work could reasonably mitigate 1,000 pounds of atmospheric CO2 per year. This is an incredibly easy way to help your business become carbon neutral.

Looking Deeper

Many other countries have already jumped on the Aluminum recycling bandwagon. Brazil is regarded as a world leader in this particular area, consistently recycling close to 90% of its aluminum.

Currently, the US only recycles 55-60%. Why shouldn’t we be recycling more?

Think About It

Possibly the best part about aluminum recycling is that once it starts, it never stops. It’s like a never-ending party at the recycling plant.

In other words, you can recycle aluminum as many times as you want and it can still be used to make soda cans as well as a host of other useful things.

Just like any other resource, aluminum availability is finite.  There’s no reason to waste it when you can easily re-use it.

It’s easy; let’s do this together.

by Tamara Perreault and Keith Heyde

Tamar and Keith are of Bowdoin College and Columbia University respectively. The two started a biotech and environmental consulting start up Abstract Algae over the summer of 2011. For more information, please contact Keith or Tamara at abstractalgae@gmail.com.

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