The Lifecycle of an Aluminum Can
Aluminum cans are one of those quiet revolutions that have transformed our lives. We’re so used to seeing them, and using them, we never really think about where they come from – and where they go once we’re finished with them.
For example, in 2011 (the last year for which figures are available), the United States alone used, and recycled, 40 billion cans that formerly held all our favorite beverages, from soft drinks to beer. This is out of the close to 110 billion cans made and discarded in The United States every year – which if recycled could avert almost 170 million metric tons of GHGs. In fact, three quarters all of the aluminum that was ever produced is still being recycled and reused today.
If that seems like an extraordinary amount of recycling, consider this: aluminum is not only amazingly suitable for packaging everything from drinks to gourmet foods, but incredibly recyclable. This makes aluminum a superlative eco-material, giving birth to other versions of itself (soup cans, cat food and condensed milk) over and over, at the approximate rate of about 33 percent of recycled material sourced with each production run.
On top of that, recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy to produce, and is responsible for 95 percent fewer emissions than newly manufactured aluminum, which means that, with every lifecycle, aluminum improves on its own carbon footprint (don’t you wish humans could do the same?) In fact, the global aluminum recycling industry avoids almost 170 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, per year. This means that a single recycled can is equivalent to the energy needed (and the GHGs produced) when you run your television for three full hours.
Viewing aluminum from the macroscopic level shows that recycling all of the nearly 110 billion cans made in the United States (and discarded) each year would save almost enough energy to light Washington, DC for about 34,500 hours, or into 2017! These figures, as reported by Earth911 and based on statistics jointly released in a study commissioned by the Aluminum Association, the Can Manufacturers Institute and the Institute of Scrap Recycling, show that aluminum can recycling was estimated to reach 65 percent in 2012, which if official makes aluminum the world’s most recycled beverage container medium.
More important, aluminum recycling is one of those Cinderella stories that lead to amazement and delight, at least among environmentalists and nature lovers. The nation’s recycling rates for aluminum are so high that one year’s conservation efforts could build a duplicate fleet of commercial aircraft in approximately 180 days! If that doesn’t wow you I don’t know what will.
So who first came up with the idea of making aluminum cans? Some say it was Coors (beer), which in 1959 introduced the first all-aluminum, seamless, two-part beverage can. Others credit the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. The inventor, Ermal Cleon Fraze, cleverly designed his beverage dispense with a pop-top lid, making can and bottle openers obsolete, at least for opening aluminum cans; bottles still needed the two-sided tool to get at the contents for another forty years. (For an excellent profile on aluminum can manufacture, visit Alcoa Aluminum).
But once Fraze and his company had done the heavy lifting, everything was downhill in terms of financial and patent security. In fact, when Fraze died in 1989, his company was worth $500 million – a significant chunk of change in the 1990s. And his aluminum can, recycled over and over, also went into construction (32 percent) and transportation (28 percent, including trucks, trains, ships and public transit buses and subway trains or light rail).
In fact, the single drawback to the aluminum can is the coating on the shell, which insures none of the metal will come in contact with the product to alter or destroy its flavor and quality. This coating, bisphenol A or BPA, which has been linked to cancer, obesity in children, reproductive anomalies in girls and inadequate thyroid function and lowered male hormones in newborn boys, also has the long-term potential of causing severe retardation in future generations.
That’s the downside, and it’s a serious drawback. On the upside, at least we are no longer eating food out of tin cans, which became obsolete in the mid-1900s (I hope) and made the product taste terrible if it sat on the shelf too long!