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What Happens To That Aluminum Can You Just Recycled?

May 18, 2017

In New England, all states except for Rhode Island and New Hampshire have bottle bills. Those are recycling programs built around a system of deposits and refunds, aimed at reducing litter and protecting the environment. But when it comes to old aluminum, it’s not just environmentalists who want to see more recycling -- there’s a real business case to be made for it, too.

As thousands of aluminum cans poured by at the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority plant in Hartford, one thing was very apparent: lots of people don’t seem to claim Connecticut’s five cent bottle deposit refund.

"As you can see, there are a lot of cans that people throw away that are valuable, as far as having nickels attached to it," said Thomas Gaffey, director of recycling and enforcement at MIRA.

In its latest report, Connecticut’s Department of Revenue Services reported about $33.5 million in unclaimed nickels. That money goes into the state’s general fund.

According to the Aluminum Association, over the last decade Americans recycled only about half of their old cans.

For MIRA, Gaffey said aluminum is its most valuable waste product. From January through March, it netted between $23,000 and $27,000 per month.

Connecticut residents leave lots of nickel bottle deposits unclaimed. According to state law, those unclaimed nickels go back to the state, netting millions in revenue each year.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling, said for industry, recycling aluminum just makes economic sense.

"Aluminum is the most valuable portion, generally, of a household's waste stream," Powell said. "The reason is -- in a really simple vernacular -- aluminum is embodied energy."

Put another way, it takes money -- and a lot of fuel -- to make virgin aluminum. That’s because the element is tied up with other compounds in ores, which can be expensive to extract.

"The aluminum industry is very aggressive at getting back recycled metal so they can use it for cans," Powell said.

Back on the recycling floor in Hartford, Gaffey said about once a month, a truck comes into the plant to pick up its old aluminum.

Eventually, those cans make its way down to an aluminum reprocessing plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, run by a company called Constellium. Andy Logsdon manages its aluminum. 

"Some people look at a can and say, 'Well, that’s an aluminum can. It must be the same properties throughout the whole thing,'" Logsdon said. "That actually isn’t true. The body of the can is one alloy -- it’s a softer alloy -- and the top and the tab are from a harder alloy."

That harder alloy contains magnesium, which makes the top more brittle and yields that nice pop and hiss when you open it up.

After aluminum is melted down (above) chemists inject additives to ensure the alloy is correct for can "body stock." The material is then cast into giant slabs, which weigh thousands of pounds and are very thick. Those slabs are then milled down to a very thin body, which is cooled and coiled before it gets shipped to can makers.
Credit Constellium - Muscle Shoals, AL

Logsdon said his plant shreds newly arrived cans and heats them up to clean and melt the material. From there, the reborn aluminum is cast into giant slabs, which are heated, thinned, and eventually rolled into coiled sheets about 8/100ths of an inch thick -- the thickness of a beer or soda can.

Logsdon said about 80 percent of what his company ships out as new aluminum coil comes from recycled scrap. "We are able to get this material and reprocess it, and actually save money, versus buying brand new virgin aluminum coming out of the smelter," he said.

"There’s this constant battle for can sheet makers to want to increase the percentage of recycled aluminum," said Brad MacAulay, a reporter at American Metal Market.

MacAulay said the used beverage containers is its own commodity: one tracked and traded -- today at about $1,400 per ton of material.

"Cans, inevitably, don’t get funneled into the correct stream, they're thrown away," MacAulay said. "That, at the end of the day, creates this deficit and so there is a healthy import market of used beverage containers in the United States."

Logsdon said that means cans come in from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and even South Korea.

Once that can becomes coil -- it gets shipped to can makers, where it’s stamped out and drawn into new cans.

Brad MacAulay said the whole recycling wheel turns very quickly.

"It’s estimated that it could be 60 days from can to can -- so essentially, from the moment that you toss the can into the recycling bin to the moment that can is put back onto a shelf," MacAulay said.

A can, reincarnated as another can, for you to pop open at your next picnic.