Last June, the aluminum industry reported that the 2006 recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans (known as ABCs) was 51.6 percent. Slightly better than half of ABC cans are recycled today, but it’s a figure hardly worth boasting about. In the 1990s more than 60 percent of them were recycled, and the aluminum industry is now moving further away from its recycling goal of 75 percent, set a decade ago.
In 2006, U.S. manufacturers sold 100.6 billion ABCs, but recycled an estimated 51.9 billion. The remaining 48 billion cans were landfilled, littered or burned in garbage incinerators. To comprehend such large numbers, consider this: dividing those 48 billion wasted cans by the 31,536,000 seconds in a year shows Americans discard an average of 1,500 ABCs every second.
One pound of aluminum yields 34, 12-ounce ABCs, so the 1,500 trashed cans equate to 44 pounds of aluminum discarded per second. That works out to 1.3 lion pounds (650,000 tons) of wasted aluminum per year, an amount equal to the annual output of two aluminum smelters. One year’s worth of America’s trashed ABCs would provide enough aluminum to make more than 8,000 747s, each comprised of 147,000 pounds of aluminum, according to Boeing.
U.S. ABC waste has risen every decade since the cans were introduced to consumers in the 1960s. We wasted an average of 11 billion a year in the 1970s, 29 billion a year in the 1980s, 35 billion a year in the 1990s and 46 billion a year since 2000, according to aluminum industry statistics. By 2006, Americans had discarded more than one trillion ABCs worth about $15 billion at today’s scrap prices.
Why are so many ABCs being trashed? Aluminum Now magazine reports that recycling rates are affected by an evolving recycling infrastructure, changeable market conditions and the whims of 300 million consumers whose behaviors are not easily marshaled. Recycling advocates cite rising “on the go” beverage consumption away from the immediate convenience of the home recycling bin. Office buildings, malls and public areas often lack recycling facilities. “Half the U.S. population has no access to curbside recycling,” says Betty McLaughlin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. Lacking ease and convenience, millions have concluded, “Why bother?”
Economics play a role, too. Redemption values for cans in “bottle bill” states have not kept pace with inflation, resulting in lower incentives to recycle. And though scrap prices for cans are at record highs, the standard 12-ounce ABC now weighs 25 percent less than a generation ago. Collecting a pound of scrap takes more work, so can recycling is less profitable. At about a penny and a half of scrap value per can, foraging in alleys and roadways hardly seems worth the effort, no matter what your economic circumstances.