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The Recycling Partnership Grant Helps MRFs Double Down on Aluminum Recovery

Aluminum beverage cans have the highest recycling rate of all drink containers at about 45 percent, with roughly 75 percent of aluminum ever made still in circulation.

Arlene Karidis

September 5, 2023

4 Min Read
Aluminum
Rio Tinto/Business Wire

Aluminum beverage cans have the highest recycling rate of all drink containers at about 45 percent, with roughly 75 percent of aluminum ever made still in circulation.

But there’s an opportunity to do better. The average materials recovery facility (MRF) loses up to 25 percent of the cans that come through its doors because they are missorted.

The Recycling Partnership, with support from the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), Alcoa Foundation, and the Arconic Foundation, launched a grant program to help operators bolster their aluminum recovery.

Five facilities have received a total of $265,000 since 2021 to purchase equipment dedicated to capturing aluminum. With their beefed up setups, they have collectively generated about 4.1 million pounds of this high-value material a year and mitigated more than 18,750 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE).

The big driver for this initiative is a strong end market for recycled content.

“We hear from our partners [in the aluminum industry] that companies are saying they want to have more cans in circulation to put out [products] with more recycled content. There is opportunity to use more of this material than what is currently on the market,” says Adam Gendell, director Materials Advancement at The Recycling Partnership.

The nonprofit, launched to advance curbside recycling, is targeting MRFs— mainly with lower-than-average recovery rates—because it believes this is the lowest hanging way to get more aluminum into the system. Many of its recovery-boosting efforts have concentrated on changing consumer behavior, teaching residents about contamination and how to recycle. But educating consumers and getting their buy in takes time.  So, for now, with existing resources the focus is on bolstering system capabilities and efficiencies.

“We want MRFs to be able to be the best stewards they can to address all the aluminum that does make it into the bin,” Gendell says.

Grant recipients have spent the money on varied technologies ranging in sophistication. A Virginia facility with a robust incoming stream, but unable to process aluminum, bought its first eddy current separator. Others put the grant toward a second eddy current or a bigger one as their operations have grown.

And a Southern California facility that was losing about half of its incoming aluminum installed a metal detector on an optical sorter on its plastics container line, enabling the interception and rerouting of more cans. A robotic sorter add-on serves as a last-chance quality control measure to catch what gets passed the eddy current separator and metal sensor.

Captured aluminum beverage cans made up 1.1 percent of Curbside Management’s shipped volume prior to receiving The Recycling Partnership grant.

“We had an older eddy current separator with a narrow 30-inch belt that was no longer able to keep up with the volume of material going across our line,” says Abraham Lawson, operations manager, Curbside Management.

The average depth of the incoming stream was too deep at times, so the Asheville, North Carolina facility was losing good material—missing about 18% of cans that came its way.

A new 60-inch separator has bumped the recovery rate by about 14 percent and is tackling a contamination problem. That’s meant being able to sell to more vendors. Takers of the aluminum bales are mills who turn the material into sheet products.

“So now we are not only able to keep it out of the landfill but also sell it for good value. We have been able to bring in 15.5 percent more aluminum so far. This tracks to allow us to achieve a payback of around 14 months for this investment,” Lawson says.

Anecdotally, MRFs in general say investing in aluminum recovery is generating cash. And industry studies tell more. Recycling facilities in states without deposit programs get about a third of their revenue from used aluminum beverage cans. All total, just shy of 46.7 billion cans recycled in 2020 brought in $700 million, according to the CMI.

GEL Recycling was losing around 20 perecent of incoming cans attributed largely to an aged optical sorting machine.

“The equipment was slow and not efficient. We had the machine firing on plastic and some aluminum was getting caught with that plastic, causing a manual removal of cans,” says Jacqueline Kerr, chief financial officer of GEL Recycling.

The Orange City, Florida operation put its $50,000 grant toward purchasing a new optical sorter for its plastic line. It included a metal detector that allowed the optical sorter to detect the cans better and sort them automatically, cutting down on long hours of manual picking.

So far GEL has seen an increase of 10 percent of its cans going out, Kerr says, translating to more revenue and more feedstock for its manufacturing customers that produce flat rolled aluminum, ultimately made into new products.

Creating a new aluminum drink container from recycled content rather than from virgin materials cuts energy consumption by 95 percent. And it mitigates up to, or greater than, 90 percent in CO2 emissions, by industry accounts.

The potential to cut GGE is what especially motivated The Partnership to double down on aluminum recovery.

“There is environmental benefit in recycling every material and packaging type. But we think aluminum is a special opportunity that  deserves this focus because of its benefits relative to other materials,” Gendell says.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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