Next time you are holding a can of soda, stop and think for a minute where that aluminum can has been. 75% of all aluminum that has ever been produced is still being used. That means your can of soda has quite the story behind it. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable. This is far superior to the recyclability of plastic and paper. For example, plastics are typically “down-cycled” into products such as carpet fiber and landfill liners, and most cardboard and paper products are unrecyclable due to remaining residue on the products that don’t come off. Aluminum cans, on the other hand, have a loop of infinite reusability, with no structural loss whatsoever.
Before recycling an aluminum can for reuse, it goes through a long and complex process. This process involves making the metal, manufacturing the can from the metal, and using the metal in form of an aluminum can. Only after completing all these steps can the aluminum be recycled for reuse. Below, we’ll dive into the history of the aluminum can, the production, and the reproduction along with how General Kinematics can help you in that recycling process.
Aluminum cans started production shortly following the end of World War II. During the war, the US shipped off millions of boxes of canned beer which at the time were produced and bottled in steel cans. After the end of the war, soldiers again desired the nostalgia of the steel can which prolonged their popularity. Steel cans were used until 1958 when the first aluminum can was produced. Between 1958-1967 a hybrid can was developed featuring a steel can with an aluminum top, or some variant of the sort. By 1967 Coke and Pepsi were using all aluminum cans for soft drink production. Today, the United States uses about 100 billion cans a year, which amounts to about 1 can a day per American. Aluminum cans grew in popularity due to their efficiency and ability for reuse. Below, we’ll walk through the formation of an aluminum can and how it can be continually reused to save energy.
Brand new aluminum is produced from bauxite ore, which is usually found in Africa, Oceania, and South America. After it is strip-mined, bauxite is chemically processed and turned into alumina, or aluminum oxide. Then, alumina is smelted to produce pure aluminum metal. This aluminum is rolled into thin sheets of metal that can be shaped into new products.
Although aluminum is a durable and efficient recyclable material, energy is still used to form and recycle it. Manufacturing makes up approximately one-quarter of an aluminum can’s overall energy consumption throughout its life. However, since aluminum is infinitely recyclable and won’t lose its properties, it more than pays for the costs, especially when it’s made from recycled cans rather than virgin metal.
After sheets of aluminum metal arrive at a manufacturing plant, they are used to create new cans. The sheets are fed through a press machine, which punches out the shape. Other machines will process and refine this shape by thinning the walls, forming the bottom, and trimming any excess. Once the cans are cleaned and prepared for commercial use, they can be printed with company brands, logos, and images.
Next, cans are varnished and sprayed with protective coatings. They’re shaped slightly to allow for stacking and storing. Finally, the cans are inspected for imperfections before being packaged for shipment to beverage companies.
Once beverage companies fill and distribute their canned products, they’re available for purchase. Consumers drink their beverages and either throw away or recycle the empty can. The number of cans that ended up in landfills in 2019 was an astounding 50 billion cans, which amounts to a 810 million dollar loss in recyclable aluminum. When they are recycled, aluminum cans are transported to scrap metal facilities, where they’ll be melted down for reuse. The melted form of recycled aluminum will go through the same manufacturing process it initially did. This reuse is called secondary production of raw aluminum, whereas processing new aluminum from bauxite ore is called primary production. Because secondary production can be done over and over thanks to the properties of aluminum, a used can is able to be recycled and ready for consumer use again in as little as 60 days. Furthermore, recycling cans save up to 95% of the necessary energy consumption to create new cans through primary production. This comes out to about a savings of 14,000 kilowatt hours per ton of energy. If 100% of cans were recycled, the energy saved would be enough to power 4.1 million homes for a full year.
For recycling facilities, the ability to quickly process aluminum and move it out for meltdown is critical. General Kinematics designs complete recycling systems for material recovery, including aluminum. Our recycling solutions like the FINGER-SCREEN™ Vibratory Screen increase efficiency and reduce costs, boosting overall recovery rates for aluminum and other material recycling. Contact us today to learn more, or to discuss your recycling equipment needs.