Is aluminum recyclable? How to recycle aluminum

Aluminum

Why You Should Be Recycling Aluminum

Look around your kitchen or desk, and you will likely see aluminum products everywhere. This versatile metal helps our lives in many ways. From beverage cans to automotive parts it’s a part of our daily lives. It is lightweight, durable, and rust-proof, making it perfect for consumer and commercial goods. Its widespread use may have you wondering, Is aluminum recyclable?

In short yes, businesses and consumers recycle more aluminum than any other material. Commercially, the building and automotive industries reuse significant amounts of aluminum. At home, consumers recycle more aluminum cans than any other item.

If you haven’t been recycling your aluminum products, now’s the time to start. Let’s look at why and how your participation matters.

The High Cost of Aluminum Production

Producing aluminum from raw material uses a lot of energy and produces a fair amount of pollution. Aluminum is gathered from bauxite, titanium dioxide, and iron oxides. The process, called the Bayer process, involves several critical steps.

The first step is to dissolve the bauxite in a sodium hydroxide solution under high temperature and pressure in a large tank. The product contains sodium aluminate and other metal residues. That will sink to the tank’s bottom for later removal.

Secondly, it is transferred to a huge tank. They cool it to form an aluminum hydroxide precipitate and sodium hydroxide. During this process, the aluminum hydroxide settles to the bottom of the tank.

Next, the aluminum hydroxide is heated to almost 1800 F to form aluminum oxide. Smelting then separates the pure aluminum from the ore. This process uses significant amounts of electricity.

Finally, they cool the molten aluminum in molds to form blocks called ingots. The blocks are then pressed through rollers into thin sheets. Businesses manufacture the sheets into many produces including packaging, car parts, building siding, and other products.

Aluminum extraction is a very expensive and energy-intensive process that requires extreme heat, electricity, precise infrastructure. The method also generates greenhouse gases and other waste. However, aluminum that has already gone through this process is fairly easy to recycle. Therefore it makes environmental sense to repeatedly reuse it, and aluminum is recyclable.

Aluminum’s Environmental Impact

The multi-step aluminum production process yields greenhouse gases and uses electricity. These gases include damaging perfluorocarbons (PFCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide.

Considered among the most dangerous greenhouse gases, PFCs pose a long-term threat to the environment. The production of new aluminum emits more PFCs than any other U.S. industrial activity.

Aluminum extraction also releases PAHs. These are carcinogens and immune-system suppressors. Widespread environmental pollutants, PAHs are easily absorbed and stored by the human body.

Aluminum smelting processes release sulfur dioxide, a major component of acid rain. Acid rain renders rainfall and water bodies more acidic. This alters the affected ecosystems and potentially threatening trees and aquatic life.

The aluminum industry has cut back on its carbon dioxide output to help reduce global carbon emissions. As a consumer, your recycling efforts help lower the need for new metal production.

Though recycling rates are high, there is a lot of room for improvement. In 2019, the U.S. produced 1.1 million metric tons of new aluminum. Imports surpassed this amount at 6.2 million metric tons. Imported aluminum comes from countries such as China and Russia.

Aluminum Recycling Fast Facts

American consumers recycle more aluminum cans than any other product. However, the numbers tell an even bigger story:

Given this progress, what can you contribute by recycling aluminum?

Should You Recycle Aluminum?

Contrary to popular belief, not all products are cheaper to recycle than to produce. Plastic uses more resources to recycle than to manufacture. Rusted iron is much more expensive to purify. Glass retains any color through recycling which limits its uses.

Therefore, is aluminum recyclable in practical terms? The good news is aluminum recycling is very cost-effective and efficient. Since the metal doesn’t rust or degrade, it can be cheaply melted down. Providing low environmental impact and reformed into new products. Aluminum can be recycled repeatedly, therefore it is highly economical.

Recycling aluminum is also energy efficient. Reusing the metal in new products requires only 5 percent of the energy needed compared to producing it from raw ore.

How to Recycle Aluminum

What happens when you place your aluminum recyclables in a curbside or community bin? The contents are trucked to recycling plants to be sorted, cleaned, and melted down. All of those aluminum cans get compressed into bales for easy transport.

The purified aluminum is then molded into ingots. Which are sent to processing plants. The blocks are rolled into thin, strong sheets and manufactured into new products that you may have in your home. The entire journey from your drink can to a new baking sheet might take only six weeks.

In a nutshell:

  • First Sorting at recycling centers. The aluminum is sorted from all the other materials.
  • Then Shredding and cleaning at reprocessing plants. Aluminum is shredded and cleaned to prepare it for repurposing.
  • Next is melting the aluminum so it can be purified and reformed.
  • Followed by removing the impurities. These are coatings which are physically or chemically removed from the aluminum.
  • Then alloy creation, some molten aluminum is combined with other metals such as zinc or copper to form strong alloys. These metal alloys are used in a variety of products.
  • Finally compounding the aluminum is formed into long ingots. These are transported to manufacturing facilities to be made into new products.

How You Can Recycle Aluminum

Given the push around reducing your household waste. You may be wondering how to recycle aluminum. Many communities offer residential and business curbside pickup. If your local area doesn’t offer pickup, your city probably offers drop-off sites.

Local governments often place recycling bins in parks or other convenient areas. Recycling centers may take larger loads and more variety of items. To locate recycling options near you, check out recyclefinder.com.

Since you now know about cans, but which other aluminum products can you recycle? Don’t overlook cleaned aluminum foil, bakeware, and other items around your home. Check with your local recycling program for its guidelines.

Summary

Recycling today is in constant change as policies and providers change. One constant you can trust is the economic and environmental value of reusing aluminum. By knowing how to recycle aluminum, you are saving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty good incentive to crush those cans, wouldn’t you agree?

For more information on recyclable materials read further on Styrofoam.

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