Americans Throw Away 1,500 Aluminum Cans Per Second.


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Yes, that’s every second of every minute of every day – Americans throw 1,500 aluminum cans in the trash every second. Not recycle… they throw the cans away. Back in the ’90s, we actually recycled more than 60% of our aluminum cans, but now we are only recycling 51.1%! Why is the recycling rate actually declining as more and more people are looking to “go green”?

As of this writing, over 23 BILLION beverage containers have been put into landfills this year. Why landfills? The Institute says it is a because a combination of our “on-the-go” lifestyle and communities’ lack of public recycling bins has left us holding a container…with nowhere to put it. Thus, we throw it in the trash. And according to E Magazine, we threw away 11 billion cans in the 1970’s, 29 billion a year in the 1980’s, 35 billion a year in the 1990’s, and 46 billion a year since 2000.

photo by by Kain Road Cul de Sac

The Container Recycling Institute, aside from talking about recycling statistics, also talks about the “dirt” behind the aluminum can. I didn’t know that:

1 ton of cans produces 5 tons of caustic waste – Each ton of aluminum cans requires 5 tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, crushed, washed, and refined into alumina before it is smelted, creating about 5 tons of caustic red mud residue which can seep into surface and groundwater. People and animals have suffered from the effects of bauxite mining in Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, and other tropical areas, she noted.

3% of the world’s electricity goes into making aluminum cans – While aluminum companies often cite tremendous savings from recycling aluminum, they fail to mention that at current wasting levels, about 23 billion kilowatt-hours are squandered globally each year through ”˜replacement production.’ About 7 kWh are saved per pound (33 cans) recycled. Had the 50 billion trashed cans been recycled, the electricity saved could power 1.3 million American homes. In total, the industry’s annual electricity consumption is almost 300 billion kilowatt-hours, or about 3% of the world’s total electricity consumption.

Hydroelectric plants for aluminum production ruin habitats and lives – According to the International Aluminum Institute, about a third of the primary aluminum produced worldwide uses coal-generated electricity, 10% relies on oil and natural gas-fired electricity generation, 5% is nuclear powered, and about half uses hydroelectricity (dams). These dams flood vast tracts of land in some places and desiccate it in others, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, threatening biodiversity, and forcing thousands of humans to leave their homes.

Aluminum smelters release greenhouse gases and toxic emissions – About 95 million tons of greenhouse gases were produced by the global aluminum industry in 2005. Primary aluminum smelting also generates sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are contributors to smog and acid rain. In 2005, 50.7 billion U.S. cans were wasted, resulting in the emission of 75,000 tons of SOx and NOx.

There has to be a better way of getting people to recycle the aluminum cans that they use. Sure, getting more people to switch to reusable bottles for things like water and juice is a start, but drinks like soda and beer are not going to taste so great if you pour it into your container in the morning and drink it later. Yuck. I am no scientist, but there has to be a way to make it work. When they introduced the $.05 bottle bill when I was a kid, I think that made people recycle for a while because it was a new tax and people did not want to pay a nickel for a can – they wanted their money back. But what is a nickel now? Maybe we should charge a $.50 premium on each aluminum can sold in this country – I bet people would recycle them at that price point

As a closing fact, did you know that 1 year’s worth of America’s trashed cans would provide enough aluminum to make more than 8,000 747’s. Not that air travel is going to last too much longer into the future without drastic changes in the industry, but still – 8,000 747’s from just the cans we throw away? Amazing. We can do better!

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  1. Interesting article. I take heed in your suggestions for a better way to package up drinks in the first place. I found an interesting company recently that use corn to produce polymers which they can then use to make plastic bottles. The result is a regular water bottle, but a 100% biodegradable one. I feel that technology like this could be a big part of the future of drinks containers.

    It should be said though that in general I am against ‘enabler’ solutions. All though they could potentially fix a problem, it enables people to continue living the way they are without realising the need to make changes to their life style – and people do need to make changes to their life style if we are to have a hope of fighting climate change.

    The company that makes the bottles is called Belu, by the way.



  2. Those “plastics” have been proven to not actually biodegrade, as people throw them away in a buried landfill w/ no oxygen…and there they sit forever. I am also very against using food for packaging, but that’s a different debate.

  3. I read the same thing about plastic bags. One company claimed that their plastic bags were biodegradable. It was all just greenwashing. I don’t understand why people buy drinks in aluminum cans. The excuses are so lame they don’t even count. I don’t drink beer but unlike all the horrible power and fake fruit drinks, beer is at least an old drink, ingrained in many cultures and still sold in glass bottles. If you must have it then buy it in glass bottle. I imagine it tastes better too. It’s scary that millions of people cannot be bothered to make such easy choices. I think that even when people recycle, only part of it gets recycled. I hope that one day we can do without cans and plastic containers and without dryer sheets, air fresheners, and gazilions disposables that are sold and thrown away every day…

  4. That 1500 cans is 26.98 grams of aluminum and at 83¢ a pound that that is at least $73 a second that could be going into people’s hands, not including the better price of refunds in some states.

    From a money standpoint, that’s a lot!!

  5. The reason for the decrease in recycling is very simple, payment for the product. As recycling became more available for people the price paid for the actual per pound amount of aluminum went down. Proportionally what you get paid to recycle is drastically less than 10 years ago. Want to spur it? Start paying people a higher premium per pound of aluminum recycle.

    1. Most people don’t get paid anything to recycle aluminum, and really, they shouldn’t. We don’t get paid to recycle plastic or paper from our homes, so why aluminum? We should all just do the right thing, really. 🙂

  6. In Michigan we have a $0.10 deposit on soda and beer bottles (aluminum, plastic, and glass). We have done so for 20 years and it works great. I can’t remember the last time that I threw away an aluminum can.

    It’s too bad that more states don’t do the same.

  7. While I am not a big user of aluminum, I would like to share my latest recycling experience. I recycled 330 lbs of batteries and 146 pounds of “tin” (some pieces of copper, brass, stainless steel, steel, etc) and received $37.50. The cost of each battery averaged $50.00 to buy new and there were 4 brake rotors and 2 brake drums that averaged $40.00 new. One could argue that I received value out of these items and that the money that I received was simply a bonus. While I agree with this statement to a point, I still feel somewhat cheated and am wondering if it was even worth my time save for the environmental impact dumping these items (all but the batteries, of course) would have.

    Plenty of organizations come to my home and take my unusable household items and resell them in their stores. If only there was such an organization that periodically picked up my recyclables…

  8. If we made it respectable to throw them into the roads and gutters, someone would recycle them for profit. If the economy fails again, it may be me.
    Instead, there are rules.

    I might be wrong, but even out here in the suburbs, when I walk the dog I see them vanish in a day or so.

  9. I don’t recycle because it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Theres no real incentive to it, after seeing how destructive we are to the environment outside of aluminum cans anyway. Look at the oil spilling into the oceans, the dolphins being slaughtered in japan, all the other animals made extinct by men, and acres of forest being cut down slowly depleting our supply of oxygen.

    Plus the refunds you get are pointless, as you have to pay the deposit on them to begin with. I dunno about you guys but I don’t drink that much pop, maybe a bottle or two a week I could recycle them and get my 10 cents back and over a period of 10 weeks make a dollar back. Or save up for a whole 52 weeks and get 5 dollars and twenty cents, but thats not gonna help seeing as I have to pay 30 bucks every week for gas is it. Oh and don’t forget to add the 52+ dollars I spent on the pop over the course of the year anyway.

    1. That’s exactly the problem we need to overcome – apathy. Just because there is no financial reward does not make it unworthy of our effort.


  11. Only recycling because of a financial reward is disgustingly petty & a cop-out. I provided recycling containers for plastics & aluminum cans for my break room at work & the kids & I crush them. They know I’m a tree-hugger & proud of it. They get half of the profit & the other half goes to help support their local 4H club. This may seem as though the profit is important but I like to think it’s positive reinforcement for the next generation. I can honestly say I’d do it for free! I buy the can, use the can & recycle the can. It’s a positive loop. So stop making excuses for why you don’t do it & get with the program! If you don’t want to recycle cans & plastics then use glass that way you are part of the solution instead of the problem.

  12. for a fascinating read (which also covers aluminum cans) check out The Story of Stuff.

    horrifying what happens in the production of aluminum, and the declining rate of recycling.

    the energy it takes to make one can is the equivalent of 1/4 of the can full of gasoline.

    we are an insane species.


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