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What makes the aluminum can so green?

4 min read


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When last we left our aluminum can, it was headed to a beverage plant to be filled and sent to a store, where someone would buy it and drink up the contents. So what happens after that?

Incremental changes over the decades that have made the process greener largely have to do with creating lighter aluminum cans that take less energy to produce and ship, says Crown Holding’s vice president for corporate affairs and PR Michael Dunleavy.

“The process is a fairly simple one; you cut out a metal disk, run it through a drawn iron process and make it into aluminum can, then you decorate it and fill it. The consumer uses it and it goes back into the recycling bin, and it can be back as a can in as soon as 60 days.”

In fact, the change that continues to have the biggest impact on sustainability is the recycling piece of it. Crown, which started life as Crown Cork and Seal after inventing the first bottle cap 120 years ago, was the first U.S. can company to start a recycling program, Dunleavy said. Back in the 1970s, the company created a separate entity called Nationwide Recyclers, which put bins in public places and equipped them with technology that could determine whether the item the consumer put in was actually a can and, if it was, pay the person a penny for it.

“In the 1980s and ‘90s, that ended as community recycling took over,” he said. “The good news today is that metal is so valuable that, even in nonrecycling communities, most of the metal gets removed and reused.”

When Crown began Nationwide Recyclers, consumers were throwing about 53 million pounds of aluminum cans into recycling bins, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute. Today, the number is more than 1,612 million pounds. Those numbers represent a significant energy savings, since manufacturing with recycled cans uses about 95% less energy than making them from virgin ore.

Aluminum cans are greener than other materials because they can be recycled indefinitely, as this overview of the process from Alcoa shows; the metal doesn’t lose strength or durability no matter how many times it’s used. Recycled cans collected at the community level head to regional centers or scrap companies that condense them into 30-pound briquettes or 1,200-pound bales and send them on to aluminum companies. There, they’re shredded into potato chip-sized pieces, stripped of paint and other coatings using a burning process, melted down and molded into ingots that in turn are stretched and flattened to become the 15,000-pound rolled sheets that will once again be turned into cans.

Once the process is complete, it’s impossible to tell whether the giant roll of aluminum was created using recycled metal or virgin ore, Dunleavy says. Further, the value of the metal offsets the costs of recycling, according to Crown’s 2011 Sustainability Report. As a result, more than half the metal used by can makers comes from recycled sources.

Just as using recycled aluminum cuts down on environmental costs, it also has an affect on the financial cost of materials. Demand for aluminum fluctuates based on global demand, but the rise in recycling has likely kept the cost down over time, Dunleavy says. “It has stopped the price from rising higher because recycling offsets the need for new material.”

Now we’ve seen the entire life cycle of the aluminum can, from metal sheet to recycling bin and back again. Next month, we’ll take a closer look at how the cans get where they’re going.