Aluminum is one of our most abundant and eminently recyclable natural resources, yet we don't always derive the value from it that we should. The United States throws away about $700 million worth of aluminum cans annually, even though aluminum recycling is relatively simple and offers numerous environmental and economic benefits.
If your industrial business requires aluminum for its products or produces aluminum as scrap and needs to dispose of it responsibly, recycled aluminum is an appealing solution. The guide below will explore the advantages of aluminum recycling, discuss the recycling process and advise you on how to discover the best prices and market strategies for your company.
Aluminum Can Be Recycled Indefinitely
Aluminum's unique characteristics make it suitable for recycling repeatedly. It maintains its physical and chemical properties even after multiple rounds of recycling and years of reuse. The recycled aluminum used in production processes today is just as sturdy, flexible and stable as it was decades ago when it first went into a consumer product. It is also 100% recyclable, so there's no waste involved and no material lost over time.
Nearly three-quarters of all the aluminum the world has ever produced is still in use today. It has cycled through thousands of aluminum products, reducing waste and helping to lower pollution levels. In contrast, only 9% of the plastic we produce goes through recycling. Most of it ends up clogging landfills or making its way into rivers and oceans, where it poses grave threats to wildlife and local ecosystems.
Post-Consumer Aluminum Recycling
Some recycled aluminum comes from curbside initiatives and municipal recycling programs. Residents can throw in items like soda cans, aluminum foil and aluminum baking trays and know these things will go on to aluminum recycling centers and provide life to new products.
Ten states in the United States also allow consumers to turn in their used aluminum cans for cash, providing a greater incentive for recycling. More than a third of all recycled aluminum cans come from the deposit programs in this handful of states. As of late 2020, the post-consumer recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans stood at 46.1%.
Post-Industrial Aluminum Recycling
Within the aluminum industry itself, additional programs promote recycling on an industrial scale. More than 90% of aluminum from building components and automotive parts undergoes recycling at the end of its life span, though rates for the aluminum used in consumer packaging are lower.
How is aluminum recycled? After recycling programs collect used aluminum products, the items become feedstock for aluminum recyclers. The recycler shreds the aluminum and other waste into chips. It feeds them through a sorter — which separates out other distinctive materials like glass and plastic — and a magnet, which removes other metals like steel. The recycler then melts the chips down at high temperatures and pours the molten aluminum into molds to create aluminum ingots it can send on for use in new products.
Melting aluminum typically generates a byproduct known as white dross, which contains about 15% to 80% aluminum mixed with impurities. Recyclers generally skim off the white dross to recover its aluminum content.
Environmental Benefits of Recycled Aluminum
Besides being easy to recycle and abundant, recycled aluminum also provides environmental advantages. Below are some of the environmental benefits recycled aluminum offers:
- Energy conservation: Recycling aluminum saves 90% of the energy required to mine and process primary aluminum. This number is so large partly because extracting bauxite and using it to produce new aluminum is incredibly energy intensive, using approximately twice the amount of energy required to create new plastic. Using recycled aluminum reduces energy consumption and all the environmental harms that go along with it.
- Reduced fossil fuel consumption: Reducing energy consumption also means decreasing fossil fuel use. Recycling aluminum instead of creating more primary aluminum reduces the harms associated with fossil fuel burning and leaves more of this finite resource available for future use.
- Decreased greenhouse gas emissions and pollution: Minimizing fossil fuel consumption contributes fewer pollutants to the atmosphere and lowers levels of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. One wrinkle here is that recycling itself requires fossil fuel consumption and produces carbon emissions, so recycled aluminum water cans, for instance, are not entirely environmentally blameless. However, compared with new plastic water bottles and the carbon costs for producing them, aluminum cans still reduce emissions substantially.
Material-Specific Data and Aluminum Recycling Rates Around the World
Knowing the tremendous environmental benefits of aluminum recycling, we should also consider some relevant data, along with the economic value of recycled aluminum.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported a substantial body of data about aluminum recycling. According to the EPA, in 2018, the United States generated 3.9 million U.S. tons of aluminum waste. That aluminum waste accounted for approximately 1.3% of all municipal solid waste generation and included the following material breakdown:
- 1.9 million tons of aluminum containers and packaging
- 2 million tons of goods
Of the 3.9 million tons of aluminum waste produced in the United States, 2.66 million tons of it went to landfills, while only 670,000 tons went for recycling. An additional 560,000 tons underwent combustion with energy recovery.
Recycled aluminum tends to bring in excellent prices. In 2016, scrap sellers received up to $1,186 for every ton of aluminum cans they sold. However, aluminum recycling rates around the world tend to fluctuate with supply and demand. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, you'll want to work with premier aluminum specialists with access to the latest global market intelligence and price outlooks.
Closing the Gap: The Future of Aluminum Recycling
Recycling aluminum will continue to be of vital importance as we work toward global energy and manufacturing sustainability. Part of that work involves closing the gap between our post-consumer and post-industrial recycling goals and our current achievements. Equally important will be expanding aluminum recycling in the industrial sector and encouraging other industries to meet the high recycling rates the automotive industry has achieved.
To buy or sell environmentally friendly scrap and secondary aluminum for industrial processes, work with HARBOR Aluminum. We are the only market intelligence firm that specializes in aluminum pricing and forecasting. We don't work with other metals, meaning we can focus all our energy and resources on providing the best aluminum data possible.
We offer value for businesses by educating our clients about true market aluminum values. We provide detailed, accurate aluminum industry data to help clients navigate the field and its submarkets worldwide. We also help clients understand the aluminum industry price outlook and devise sound investment, purchasing and marketing strategies. Once we've accomplished all that, we connect our clients with the right industry supplier or customer for their products and services, securing economically beneficial partnerships for both buyer and seller.