Buried Treasure

LAST YEAR, AMERICANS WASTED approximately $800 million by discarding nearly 50 billion aluminium cans into landfills, states Alcan Inc., a Montreal-based aluminum and packaging company that has produced a recent study, “Recycling Today: The American Consumers' Viewpoint.” The study sampled approximately 1,000 consumers on aluminum can recycling and found that the aluminum recycling rate has dropped almost 55 percent within the past few years. America's lack of awareness largely is to blame for the decline, Alcan says.

In fact, 47 percent of Americans believe that the nation is recycling more cans today than it was five years ago; 28 percent said the recycling rate has stayed the same; and only 22 percent thought it had declined, the study states.

“Those in the waste and recycling industries are well-aware that the national aluminum can recycling rate recently dropped below 60 percent for the first time in a decade,” says Martha Finn Brooks, president of Alcan Aluminum Corp., Cleveland. “The survey findings show we have a major public education campaign to conduct to reverse this trend.”

To help address the declining aluminum can recycling rate, communities need to work hard to educate themselves and reinvigorate their recycling programs, according to Brooks.

“Consumer behavior is critical to recycling's success,” Brooks says. “Educating the consumer about the economic and environmental benefits of recycling is key to promoting the right behavior. We've got to make it as automatic to recycle aluminum cans as it is to fasten our seatbelts.”

Educating communities about the decline in aluminum can recycling is important because of the amount of energy that can be saved, Brooks adds. Recycling new metal from used aluminum can save up to 95 percent of the energy required to make primary aluminum. In 2001, the energy lost from unrecycled cans was equal to approximately 16 million barrels of crude oil or enough power to supply electricity to 2.7 million homes for a year, according to the survey. Recycling a single can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours. Also, energy saved from recycling helps the environment because it reduces production-related emissions, such as greenhouse gases.

The survey compiles several aluminum can-recycling facts to emphasize the benefits of recycling the material. For example, the commodity is the only packaging material that covers its collection and processing costs.

Since 1990, approximately 7 million tons of aluminum cans with a market value of $7 billion have not been recycled, the study states. However, producing aluminum cans from recycled aluminum is economical because it has the ability to recycle into itself, making aluminum valuable in the waste stream. No other waste commodity matches aluminum's $1,100 per ton average value, according to the report.

Other survey results include:

  • During the past five years, 49 percent of Americans reported recycling more; 32 percent recycled the same amount; and 17 percent reported recycling less during the past five years.

  • Americans surveyed believe the main obstacles to increasing recycling include laziness, 33 percent; inconvenience, 21 percent; and a lack of recycling programs and facilities, 11 percent.

  • Approximately 64 percent reported that whether a product's container can be recycled contributes to whether people purchase it, as opposed to 12 percent who said this was not an important factor.

  • Twenty-two percent agreed that increasing the number of recycling centers is the best way to increase the recycling rate; 18 percent preferred increasing support for government-sponsored recycling programs; 17 percent said they would like more education on the monetary benefits of recycling; and 17 percent said they would like more education concerning recycling's environmental benefits.

Aluminum cans often have been a foundation in recycling programs across the nation, but New York City and other major cities have reduced or considered eliminating their curbside collection programs because recycling revenues are not sufficient to prevent significant losses. The revenue from aluminum can recycling will not generate enough to support these programs, and other recyclable materials' markets are too weak to generate significant revenue, according to the report. However, the study also notes that 77 percent of Americans participate in government-sponsored recycling programs.

The aluminum can recycling industry is concerned because valuable resources are being wasted, Brooks says, and unfortunately, millions of dollars in potential revenue are being lost each year. There seems to be a perception gap because “Americans personally support can recycling, but the reality is there has been a drop in the [recycling] rate,” Brooks says.