aluminum-recycling

Aluminum Recycling: An Introduction

Steve Russell - March 8, 2023

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Aluminum is one of the most fascinating materials for packaging and constructing technology. Its malleability, lightweight nature, and abundance make it desirable for manufacturers and consumers alike. With global intrigue and urgency rising over corporate and individual eco-friendly practices, everyone is curious about aluminum recycling. Is it worth it, how does it happen, and how many times can it undergo the process before losing luster?

The Need for Aluminum Recycling

Aluminum is one of the most naturally occurring metals in the Earth’s crust. However, it’s never alone. Unethical mining methods go to extract bauxite, another nonrenewable resource that scientists can use for extra usable aluminum. Most know aluminum because it’s the most recycled material on Earth and is infinitely recyclable, making it one of the most eco-friendly recycling options. 

However, aluminum’s process to get to a finished product is environmentally strenuous and lacks awareness of its finite nature. Aluminum’s high melting point doesn’t help, because even after it’s separated from bauxite, the energy and water use and waste production don’t stop. Humans are fortunate for its limitless usability because the more humanity repurposes it, the better the footprint it has the longer it stays in use.

The Recycling Process

Recycling aluminum only takes 5% of the energy required to mine sources from scratch, saving countless oil barrels and labor hours. Because of this efficiency, most manufacturing making products from aluminum do so with secondary aluminum instead of newly obtained, primary aluminum — this doesn’t stop aluminum strip mining from being a profitable business. 

However, aluminum recycling has to be advantageous and easy for it to be so successful. It must benefit businesses and consumers equally to promote it so highly — it helps that aluminum doesn’t lose quality each time it goes through the process. Here are the steps your cans and other aluminum products go through to stay in the system:

  1. Collecting and sorting: After workers collect recycling bins and take them to facilities, conveyors and humans separate materials. Aluminum isn’t magnetic, and magnets can’t pull them out.
  2. Shredding: The materials become smaller pieces.
  3. Cleaning: The parts get washed with chemicals to remove contaminants.
  4. Melting: Furnaces melt the bundles down.
  5. Byproduct removal: Melting aluminum produces dross and hydrogen, and other gases like chlorine remove them.
  6. Creating alloys: Aluminum can mix with almost anything, whether copper or silicon. At this stage, they combine depending on what the purpose will be.
  7. Compounding and distributing: After mixing, facilities can form ingots to ship to manufacturers.

The Amount of Aluminum That’s Recycled

Internationally, humans recycled around 73% of aluminum — most submission data is based exclusively on can recycling, as most places don’t accept other aluminum forms. If research looked at a wider frame, analyzing all aluminum materials and products, the number would potentially be much lower.

Scrap recycling grows yearly, and experts project it will be worth $25.12 billion by 2030. These numbers accentuate its profitability and that the amount people are recycling aluminum increases. Figures like this can reveal more insights, such as a rise in demand for aluminum. 

Because consumers are pushing companies to move away from plastic to aluminum, among other social and financial motivations, more companies will want to acquire large amounts of aluminum. It could lead to more virgin aluminum mining, but it’s uncertain. Food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only people hungering for aluminum stores — tech companies are looking to the material as a way to meet sustainability goals.


The State of Aluminum Foil and Other FAQ

Even though the world has discovered ways to recycle aluminum efficiently, there’s still plenty of nuance to the material, making the process more intriguing. Humanity has still not found a way to process any material of smaller size effectively unless it is through manual sorting — consider aluminum can tabs. It is a sign there is change to come if people continue advocating for infrastructure improvements.

But, what are some answers we know right now about the state of the industry?

Why is Aluminum Foil not Recyclable?

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t — it depends on what your local recycling center accepts, and it can vary by country. The issue with aluminum foil is it typically contains food debris that recyclers don’t generally clean beforehand. Recycling facilities don’t clean aluminum until a few steps into the process, so it would have to happen before sorting to be productive. 

Additionally, facilities cannot recycle aluminum alongside tubing and other packaging — the mixture of materials would require facilities to separate items manually, and, for the sake of efficiency, it would probably go in the trash before this would occur.

Does Crushing Cans Help or Hurt Aluminum Recycling?

Do you have single-stream or multiple-stream recycling? Single-stream refers to every material in the same bin, whereas multiple-stream has separate containers. Knowing what you have will answer this question. Single streams prefer customers not to crush cans because their sorting infrastructure won’t be as accurate. Multiple-stream recycling centers have specific areas and machines for collecting cans, and they anticipate them to come in various shapes and sizes — they’re better equipped to handle smaller items.

If I Sell Cans, Do They Get Recycled?

Though selling aluminum cans for extra cash is falling out of fashion, these cans go to recycling centers. The pennies offered to customers are a mere incentive to keep caring for the planet.

Is Aluminum Better Than Plastic?

Many question if it’s the answer to the revolution against plastic. Though aluminum could be more eco-friendly in many ways, the flaws in the aluminum recycling system highlight the need for broader systemic change. Not all aluminum sent to be recycled gets recycled — a common theme among other recyclable materials.

Aluminum Recycling Sets a Precedent

Creating products out of aluminum isn’t perfect — most materials have origins in questionable raw materials acquisition. However, the way humanity powered aluminum recycling provides hope for a circular economy. The more normalized it becomes to reuse materials, the more encouraged companies will feel to find solutions for other resources. Aluminum recycling isn’t faultless, but the system is on its way to carving standards for recycling worldwide.


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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.