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What happens to aluminum cans?

| September 17, 2014

For many of us, we can’t get through the day without that 2:00 p.m. shot of caffeine via a can of soda. (Not to mention the 3:00 shot of caffeine. And the 3:30 shot of caffeine…and the 4:00…)

Needless to say, those cans add up quickly. It’s fairly commonplace to recycle aluminum cans, but what really happens after we drop them in the recycling bin? Writer Katharine Schwab of The Seattle Times decided to find out. She donned “a neon yellow vest, safety glasses, and a hard hat” to dive deep into Seattle’s recycling plants.

aluminum cans

Aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times. From Kai Yan, Joseph Wong.

Here’s what she found out:

Your soda can is a recycling plant’s best friend

That aluminum can is ripe for recycling. Aluminum is not only 100 percent recyclable, but it can also be recycled “an infinite number of times,” reports Schwab. And the cycle happens pretty fast, too. From the time you toss your soda can in the recycling bin, only a month or two will pass before the can ends up back on the shelf, ready to give you your next caffeine hit.

This information should give you all the motivation you need to take your can a few extra steps to a recycling bin instead of simply tossing it into the trash. Just think: by sending a can to a landfill, you’re permanently removing it from a cycle in which it could have come back to life dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times. Don’t be that guy.

Recycling is a business

We might think of recycling as a do-gooder activity that’s run by the city as a way to help out the environment. That’s true, sort of—but it’s nowhere near the whole story. As Schwab quickly discovered, recycling is a business. (And a multibillion dollar business at that.)

In the case of Seattle, the city contracts with three private companies that deal with the city’s waste. Those companies also contract with commercial businesses in the area. All of these contracts are extraordinarily lucrative. The companies who collect and process the waste then sell the materials “as commodities in the domestic and world market.

That’s why a recycling plant isn’t just intended to keep discarded materials out of landfills. It’s really about recovering those materials so they can be sold.  (In fact, Schwab says that recycling plants are known as “materials recovery facilities” in the industry.)

Does the money involved make recycling any less important? Not at all. On the contrary—the fact that recycling presents a viable business opportunity motivates private businesses to keep investing in ways to recycle more materials, more efficiently.

Recycling is more high-tech than ever

Speaking of investing in recycling technology, Schwab was amazed by the “amazingly high tech” sorting processes at the recycling plants she visited. She noted an optical sorter that “uses infrared light technology to detect the type of polymer in plastics.” A magnet captures steel cans as they pass by, and “an eddy current, which works similarly to a reverse magnet, uses a magnetic field that polarizes aluminum cans and pops them over a partition into a bunker.”

So the next time you crack open an aluminum can, think about the journey it has already been on. And—with your help—the journey can continue for a long, long time.

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Category: Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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