Profiles in Garbage: Aluminum Packaging

Bauxite ore is mined and refined into alumina (aluminum oxide), one of the primary feedstocks for aluminum metal. Scrap aluminum supplies one-third of America's total aluminum supply. Recycled aluminum cans supply more than one-fifth of the total aluminum scrap used as a raw material.

Twenty-two percent of the aluminum used in America goes into packaging. This is the second largest use for aluminum, trailing only transportation products.

Aluminum packaging is produced in both rigid and foil forms. Rigid aluminum containers are used for beverages and food.

Aluminum cans account for all of the beverage can market, but a small food can market percentage. Foil packaging is used as a wrapping foil, as semi-rigid packages such as pie plates and frozen food trays, and as flexible packaging such as cigarette foil and candy wrappers.

Aluminum packaging never has had more than 1 percent market share of generated municipal solid waste (MSW).

Aluminum Packaging MSW Facts: Generated: - 1.96 million tons or 0.9% by weight. superscript * - 1.59 million tons of cans per year. superscript * - 370,000 tons of foil per year. superscript * - 14.51 pounds of aluminum packaging per person per year. superscript * - 11.77 pounds of cans and 2.74 pounds of foil per person per year. superscript * - 102.2 billion cans, or 379 cans per person, were used in 1999. - 1 can weighs slightly less than 1/33 of a pound. - 79% of cans are generated in homes and 21% are generated in businesses. - 90% of foil is generated in homes and 10% is generated in businesses.

Recycled: - 860,000 tons for a 43.9% aluminum packaging recycling rate. superscript * - 830,000 tons for a 53.9% can recycling rate. superscript * - Industry data shows 965,000 tons for a 62.5% can recycling rate in 1999. - 30,000 tons for an 8.1% foil recycling rate. superscript *

Recycled Content: - 33% of total aluminum industry raw material supply was recycled aluminum in 1999. - 51.2% for cans in 1999 according to industry data.

Composted: - Aluminum packaging does not compost.

Burned or Landfilled: - 1.1 million tons or 0.7% of discarded MSW by weight. superscript * - 760,000 tons of cans and 340,000 tons of foil. superscript * - Aluminum is noncombustible and can result in residue in incinerator ash.

Landfill Volume: - 6.5 million cubic yards or 1.6% of landfilled MSW in 1997. - 5.3 million cubic yards of cans and 1.2 million cubic yards of foil in 1997.

Density: - Landfilled aluminum cans weigh 250 pounds per cubic yard. superscript * - Landfilled foil weighs 550 pounds per cubic yard. superscript * - Loose aluminum cans have a density of 50 pounds to 74 pounds per cubic yard. - Flattened cans have a density of 250 pounds per cubic yard.

Source Reduction: - In 1972, 21.75 cans weighed one pound. - In 1999, 33.10 cans weighed one pound.

Markets: Aluminum beverage containers are one of the most valuable recyclables due to energy cost savings. In 1999, the aluminum industry paid approximately $990 million for used cans. Foil packaging is less valuable. Most pricing sheets give street, processor (toll) and end-market prices.

Aluminum can sheet manufacturers are the primary market for used aluminum cans. Foil usually is bought by the same markets.

End-Market Specifications: Aluminum cans fall under Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Guidelines for Nonferrous Scrap: NF-98. "Old can stock" specifications include nonbeverage cans. "Shredded," "densified," "baled" and "briquetted" specifications exclude nonbeverage cans.

Contaminants include dirt, moisture, plastic, glass and other metals. Lead is a particular problem. While a magnet easily will separate steel cans from aluminum cans, other contaminants are harder to spot.

Foil markets generally want clean, dry foil. Because foil and cans use different alloys, they will contaminate each other in the recycling process.

Recycling Cost and Value: - Can collection costs range from $526 per ton to $743 per ton. - Can processing costs average $143.41 with a range of $72.88 to $362.59. - No collection or processing cost data exists for aluminum foil.

Aluminum Association, Washington, D.C. Website:

"Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update," 1999. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Washington, D.C. Website:

"Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines," National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va. Website:

"Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998," EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2000. Website:

National Solid Wastes Management Association's Waste Recyclers Council, Processing and Collection Cost Studies. Website:

"Scrap Specifications Circular 1998," Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Website:

superscript *U.S. EPA 1998 estimates.