July 25, 2023

Aluminum: An Infinitely Recyclable Metal

What do Coke cans, Blue Hydrangeas, and cars have in common? They’re all made using aluminum! Aluminum is the third most common element on the planet and abundantly found in the Earth’s crust. Because it’s lightweight, flexible, and durable, it is used in a plethora of different products, such as foil, beverage cans, soil acidifiers (for those beautiful Hydrangeas), smartphones, and airplane parts. Society as a whole produces a lot of aluminum. In 2022, the world produced roughly 68 million tons of the metal, which is roughly equivalent to over 450 FULL cargo ships!

Aluminum is not only extremely versatile and plentiful -  it’s also the perfect material for recycling. Because of its physical properties, aluminum is one of the best materials to recycle in terms of product quality and efficiency. Aluminum has a near infinite recycling rate, meaning that once the material is created, it can be recycled repeatedly without degrading in quality. In fact, almost 75% of all aluminum products ever manufactured are still used today. This is incredible when compared to the recycled content found in typical glass and plastic, which only stand at 23% and 6%, respectively.  Aluminum recycling is also incredibly fast. After being deposited in the recycling stream, recycled aluminum products are usually back on the market as a new product in a matter of weeks.

Recycling aluminum is incredibly energy efficient and beneficial for the environment. Creating new aluminum material involves large, harmful amounts of ore mining and energy intensive smelting and purifying processes that release large amounts of Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere. By contrast, recycling aluminum is much easier. The metal is sorted from recyclables collected at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and sent to aluminum smelters. Once there, the aluminum is shredded, cleaned, then melted at high temperatures. Various impurities are removed from the hot metal and metals like copper and zinc are added to enhance the aluminum’s properties. The overall process of creating recycled aluminum consumes only 5% of the energy needed to produce new aluminum from mined deposits. This incredible decrease in energy costs allows businesses to save money on production and greatly reduces Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Due in part to its incredible qualities, aluminum and recycled aluminum use has greatly increased over the years in many different industries. Because its alloys are just as strong as steel and substantially lighter, almost all modern cars are made using aluminum. This switch has been beneficial on almost all fronts, as aluminum cars have shorter stopping distance and protect passengers from crashes better than steel cars. The decrease in material weight also helps improve the gas mileage of cars, helping to reduce vehicle emissions. With these facts in mind, it's no surprise that almost 90% of all aluminum in end of life vehicles is recycled. Because recycled aluminum is so cost effective and less taxing on the environment, many of Apple’s new products use 100% recycled aluminum in their cases, and 67% of aluminum used to make their devices came from recycled sources.

Some obstacles prevent aluminum recycling from reaching its full recycling potential; more consumers need to input aluminum into the recycling stream, whether that be cans, used vehicles, or other aluminum objects. In 2018, the EPA approximated that out of the 3.9 million tons of aluminum cans collected by Municipal Solid Waste providers in the US, roughly 35% of that tonnage was recycled into new aluminum products. Because aluminum was seemingly made for a circular economy, it is important that this rate increases across the world, as it would lead to less emissions of Greenhouse Gases, less reliance on fossil fuels and disposable materials, and less global energy consumption. CIRT sees aluminum as an all-star of the recycling world, and that is why we offer both curbside and drop off station recycling information for aluminum materials. Our goal as a company is to promote the circularity of this incredible metal in the recycling stream and ensure that society can reap the maximum benefits associated with recycling aluminum products.