Aluminum's Amazing Facts: Infinitely Recyclable, Abundant in the Earth's Crust

Updated on December 22, 2018
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John has recycled metals most of his life. He is fascinated by waste that has value. Recycling made him aware of its necessity - and worth.

Some Lesser Known Aluminum Recyclable Objects

Aluminum wire, aluminum shell casings, aluminum heat sinks, and an aluminum bracket
Aluminum wire, aluminum shell casings, aluminum heat sinks, and an aluminum bracket | Source

Introduction

I have recycled metals for many years, and during that time environmental questions and researched answers have shaped my thinking. Though my primary focus has been on earning a little extra money, as I age, thoughts of the impact of my actions on the world creep in. Researching the positive effects of recycling aluminum and other metals - and their impact on the environment - has astounded me. This commentary is intended to demonstrate astonishing savings to energy, labor, and the environs by recycling aluminum.

No Chump Change From Recycling Aluminum

In 2017, 3.7 million tons of aluminum were produced by recycling in the United States, saving enough energy to provide electricity to 7.7 million homes. This reduction in energy expended to process ore in 2017 will serve as an initial shock for the reader.

In 2017, the average annual electricity consumed by a residential utility customer in the United States was 10,399 kilowatt hours (kWh). This is an average of 867 kWh per month. That is 80,072,300,000 kWh! The average cost of electricity in the U.S. is 12 cents per kWh which translates into a little more than 9.6 billion dollars annually saved. Recycling aluminum is no small venture.

Aluminum screen frame, aluminum picture frames, and aluminum wire track
Aluminum screen frame, aluminum picture frames, and aluminum wire track

That Can Sitting on the Counter Is Stunning

The processing of aluminum in the United States requires a huge amount of electricity. This is why Iceland has become an important stop for processing aluminum. With geothermal energy abundance, Iceland can offer better rates to process for a kWh than any other country. Processing of aluminum requires more energy than any other manufacturing endeavor in the United States. So, the more we can recycle aluminum, the less reliant we are on foreign processing.

Cleaning and remelting aluminum brings about a 94% reduction in cost over new mining of aluminum ore. If one thinks about it, a 94% decrease in cost for anything seems almost unbelievable. It is true that demand requires new ore to be processed, but an increase in recycling aluminum could bring about dramatic decreases in cost of manufactured goods requiring aluminum.

You may be able to down a can of Coke quickly, but have you ever thought about how fast that can, if you recycled it, would be back in two months. You have the power to save huge amounts of power by recycling aluminum. The same goes for other materials.

Can Anything Be Used Forever?

While 67 % of aluminum cans are recycled (some estimates are as low as 45%), 75% of all the aluminum ever made has been recycled. It is the most valuable commodity in the recycle bin. Aluminum can be reprocessed infinitely. Think of the value to the 33% of aluminum cans that are not recycled. The aluminum industry pays out more than 800 million dollars a year for recycled cans. That means that at current rates, nearly 400 million dollars worth of aluminum cans is being more than likely sent to the dump each year.

Supermarkets Have a Metallic Hidden Treasure

As you walk through your grocery store and view the shelves on the soda pop isle (don't forget beer), reflect on the fact that every grocery market in America has an isle like that. Do you realize that 800 billion aluminum cans are produced each year? To bring this fact home in a different way, one aluminum can made from processed ore (virgin aluminum) costs as much as 20 recycled cans.

Chunk of aluminium, 2.6 grams, 1 x 2 cm.
Chunk of aluminium, 2.6 grams, 1 x 2 cm. | Source

What's a Kilowatt-Hour?

A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy required to run a 1000 watt appliance for an hour. A single pound of recycled cans (about 33 cans) can save about 7 kWh of electricity. That is slightly more than the electricity used to power two 3-ton air conditioners for one hour for the average American. Put another way, one ton of recycled aluminum is really good for reducing the carbon footprint. It saves 40 barrels of oil required to generate that much electricity.

While on the subject of conservation, many of the common recyclables from the bin can be easily baled. By using baling machines, aluminum can be cheaply-shaped to fit compactly on flatbed trucks and trains for shipment. This maximizes the loads carried and reduces the amount of fuel expended.

Baled cans ready for transport
Baled cans ready for transport | Source

Time Is Money

Some may say that recycling merely slows the process of amassing virgin materials. But slowing down the speed with which we use up mother nature is important. It slows down the speed with which we pollute the atmosphere and it gives us time to channel our efforts into recombining and discovering new materials.

Remember that ton of recycled aluminum we talked about earlier. It saves ten cubic yards of landfill. A standard stove is 1 cubic yard in volume. So put another way, the ton of recycled aluminum saves the amount of space that 10 standard stoves would take up. That's compelling. And finding acreage for new landfills is becoming a challenge.

Smelting Aluminum Ingots

The Goal of Sustainability - 2018

Since 1995, the aluminum industry has cut its carbon footprint by 40%. If you want to keep a building cool, aluminum coated metal roofs can do it. Aluminum provides a 95% solar reflection. Shipping costs are reduced in all forms of packaging with aluminum. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by a whopping 44 million tons when a fleet of vehicles are made out of aluminum.

North American aluminum is in the forefront of sustainability. It will be the metal of choice increasingly because of its strength, durability, lightweight, corrosion resistance, and immortality.

Concise Summation

For our children and grandchildren to live fruitful lives, we need to seriously chart a course towards sustainability. If we want our progeny to breath clean air, to have fresh water, to have access to economic and sustaining fuel, and to have abundant material to build, we need to prioritize that which will be available. We know that aluminum is as close to a perfect metal for our practical use as anything. A thin oxide that forms on its surface keeps it from rusting. When melted it loses none of its valuable characteristics over boundless time. It can be used to build things which must be light, like airplanes, and things which must withstand great weights, like buildings. It is the third most common element on Earth making up 8% of the Earth's crust.

Recycling as much aluminum as possible will be key to the goals above. Barring discovery of a new metallic element with supernatural qualities, aluminum will be more and more the metal of choice going forward.

Sources

Electricity Education, (2017, April 3). What Is a Kilowatt-Hour (kWh) and What Can It Power?, https://electricityplans.com/kwh-kilowatt-hour-can-power/

SOE Team, (2016, September 12). Recycling: An Energy-Saving Shortcut, https://www.saveonenergy.com/learning-center/post/recycling-save-energy/

Waste Wise Products Inc. (2017, October 10). How Much Energy Does Recycling One Aluminum Can Save? https://www.wastewiseproductsinc.com/blog/recycling-tips/how-much-energy-does-recycling-one-aluminum-can-save/

American Geosciences Institute (2008, November). https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-does-recycling-save-energy

Harmony Enterprises, Inc. (No Date). How Recycling Saves Energy, https://harmony1.com/recycling-saves-energy/

Greentumble (2018, September 10). How Does Recycling Save Energy?https://greentumble.com/how-does-recycling-save-energy/#aluminum

Hometown Dumpster Rental (2018). How Big Is a 10 Cubic Yard Dumpster? https://www.hometowndumpsterrental.com/blog/how-big-is-a-10-cubic-yard-dumpster

The Aluminum Association (2018). Recycling, https://www.aluminum.org/industries/production/recycling

The Aluminum Association (2018) Aluminum Refining, https://www.aluminum.org/industries/production/alumina-refining

Fava, Philip (2011, November 21). The Positive Impact the Metal Recycling Industry Has on the United States, https://www.forbes.com/sites/philfava/2011/11/21/the-positive-impact-the-scrap-metal-recycling-industry-has-on-the-united-states/#70f6fbf24f25

The Aluminum Association (2018). Aluminum Sustainability, Lightweight, Strong, and Highly Recyclable, https://www.aluminum.org/aluminum-sustainability

McCarthy, Niall (2016, March 4). The Countries WInning the Recycling Race, https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2016/03/04/the-countries-winning-the-recycling-race-infographic/#6c2c54992b3d

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 John R Wilsdon

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