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To save recycling, look to the aluminum can

To save recycling, look to the aluminum can
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Recycling in the United States is in crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that recycling across the board is on the decline. New policies in China significantly closed off markets for much of the recycled material generated in the U.S. And with fewer buyers, recycling companies have raised costs, prompting many localities to shutter recycling programs altogether. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the pressure.

While the news isn’t all bad — recycling is still working well in many parts of the country — there is nonetheless a clear and dire need to shore up the system overall. We believe the key to doing so is the dependable aluminum beverage can.

The inherent value of aluminum is the engine that makes our recycling system go. According to the Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside report, aluminum packaging represents only 3 percent of the weight but nearly half of the economic value of recyclable material generated by all single-family homes. And, since we use aluminum scrap to make new cans, we don’t need to rely on foreign markets to sell the recycled material — the market exists right here at home. By capturing all of the value from used aluminum cans, we can revitalize American recycling. The aluminum can industry is ready to do just that — but we have our work cut out for us.

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Our organizations today jointly released an updated report — The Aluminum Can Advantage: Sustainability Key Performance Indicators 2020, which brought both good and bad news.

On one hand, it found that the aluminum can continues to out-perform other packaging types on virtually every measure. The average new can produced in the U.S. was made of 73 percent recycled material, compared to less than 6 percent for the average plastic bottle. Further, aluminum cans are still the most recycled beverage container, with nearly 5 million cans recycled every hour in the U.S.

Unfortunately, our report also found that the aluminum can recycling rate among consumers fell almost 4 points to 46.1 percent, bringing it below its 20-year average of around 50 percent. We must reverse this trend so we can capture the value of aluminum rather than sending it to the landfill.

Our industries are committed to leading the way. We’ve done so ever since the aluminum can recycling rate was first calculated in 1972, when it sat at a then-impressive 15 percent. If we could more than triple it in just a few decades, we should be able to get it back on track today. But how?

We lay out some ideas in a new joint paper — “Every Can Counts: An Aluminum Beverage Can Recycling Manifesto.

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We should start with educating consumers on the vital importance of recycling cans. Between 40 and 50 billion cans end up in landfills each year, equivalent to more than a dozen 12-packs of cans for every person in the U.S. Adequately resourced, current technology could allow us to capture and recycle most or all of these cans. Doing so would mean an additional $810 million of aluminum scrap value each year flowing into the recycling system, making it well worth the investment.

We must also improve recycling infrastructure. The lack of proper can sorting equipment at municipal recycling facilities are responsible for cans being sent to landfills instead of kept in the recycling stream. Anecdotal research shows that adding a new eddy current or upgrading an old one can pay for itself within a couple of years by bringing new can scrap into the system. The Can Manufacturers Institute recently launched a grant program with funding from Ardagh Group and Crown Holdings to help finance such investments.

Next, we must pursue smart policy to increase participation in municipal recycling programs, including policies that recognize the unique value of aluminum recycling that sustains the overall system. One particular area of interest is container deposit programs. More than 40 percent of the aluminum cans recycled in the U.S. come from the 10 container deposit states, despite those states representing just a quarter of all consumption. Should other states consider adding their own deposit programs to incentivize recycling, they should follow the best practice principles our industries outlined earlier this year.

Finally, our industries are committed to working with a number of multi-material coalitions — including through the Environmental Protection Agency and The Recycling Partnership — on programs to promote and grow U.S. recycling. We want to boost all material recycling rates, because a rising tide of recycling will lift all boats.

As the recycling system struggles today, the economic logic is simple — the more aluminum we return back to the recycling stream, the healthier the overall system. Aluminum punches above its weight in value. 

The environmental impact is also profound. If we recycled every can in the U.S., we could save more than 5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, the equivalent of taking more than 1 million vehicles off the road.

The vast majority of Americans embrace recycling as a simple way to help the environment and live more sustainably. It’s time for the recycling industry to re-inspire and rally Americans around the cause of a sustainable future. We’ll raise a can to that.

Tom Dobbins is President & CEO of the Aluminum Association. Robert Budway is President of the Can Manufacturers Institute.