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When last we saw our can, it had been separated from the piles of plastic, paper, glass and other metals trucked into Waste Management’s single-stream recycling center, baled up and readied for sale to another company that would turn it back into the sheet metal from whence it came.
At Alcoa plants in Tennessee and near Sydney, that’s the next step.
Remember back in December when we first learned how a can was made from giant rolls of aluminum sheeting? Well, the Alcoa plants bring us back to that beginning — they turn recycled cans and virgin aluminum into those giant rolls, creating different thicknesses and strengths for different uses.
Here’s an important fact about aluminum — it doesn’t occur naturally. The metal has to be created the first time around through smelting of bauxite, a time-consuming and energy-intensive process that’s illustrated in this Science video, which points out among other things that it takes between 4 and 5 tons of bauxite to make 1 ton of finished aluminum.
Contrast that with the way used cans are recycled. The bales from Waste Management and other centers are shipped to processing plants, where they are first shredded then passed through a magnetized machine to remove any steel contaminants. Then, another machine blows hot air through the shreds to remove any lacquers and coatings. Then, the metal is heated to molten metal and formed into ingots, which are about 30 feet long and can weigh as much as 32,000 pounds apiece. Each one will be rolled out, like virgin aluminum, into sheets that will later be cast into cans again. Alcoa offers a handy diagram showing how it all happens.
The finished rolls made by both processes are then shipped to can-makers, and the whole cycle begins again. With the recycled metal, the entire process from recycling bin back to store shelf can be done in 60 days and uses only about 5% of the energy it takes to produce the same amount of virgin aluminum, Alcoa spokeswoman Libby Archell said.
“It’s much easier to recycle cans; it’s just melting down that metal and recasting it,” she said.
Alcoa has been at the forefront of the aluminum-can industry since its invention in the 1950s. More recently, the company set a goal of raising the used beverage can recycling rate in the U.S. to 75% by 2015 and has worked to bring together all industry players, including bottlers, beverage-makers, retailers and municipalities, to foster initiatives to make that happen, Archell said.
“From an energy-efficiency perspective, that can holds a great deal of energy value, so if you throw it away, you’re throwing away energy value,” Archell said. “That’s just unconscionable.”