Aluminum is a precious metal found in the Earth’s crust. It is actually the most abundant metal on Earth and one of the most recycled materials today. About 75% of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today. The recycling loop of aluminum has been perfected through the years so that now, discarded aluminum cans can be found in a store again in as little as 60 days.
Impact of production
The popularity of aluminum packaging, especially for beverages, comes from its durability and lightweight. Although its recycling rates are impressive, extraction still impacts the environment to this day. The extraction and production process of aluminum are quite energy intensive. The shiny metal we know and use daily is actually a highly processed form of bauxite ore, which is found right beneath the ground. It takes around 5 tons of bauxite to produce 1 ton of aluminum. Mining and processing this ore require a lot of energy, land and water. It leads to biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, and air and water pollution.
The reality of recycling
However, aluminum has the potential to be infinitely recycled since it doesn’t degrade during the recycling process. It means that all aluminum products are 100% recyclable if appropriately discarded. If left in nature, full decomposing can take up to 500 years. Because aluminum recycling is so effective, the process has been perfected throughout the years. Now, recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy and resources used during the extraction process. Reusing the metal instead of extracting it is also highly cost-efficient for companies. In fact, only 1.3% of municipal solid waste in the United States (2018) came from aluminum products.
Aluminum is an excellent example of a circular economy. Once extracted and processed, the metal can be sold, remelted, and then sold again indefinitely. Although cans are not 100% made from recycled aluminum, it is cost-effective for companies to remelt the metal instead of extracting it. The focus on improving the recycling process of the metal is a step towards a sustainable production process. Even if much of the aluminum used today is recycled, too much is still lost to landfills.
To conclude, aluminum is a sustainable choice only if it is adequately recycled to be used again. To do so, make sure to clean the can or container and recycle it properly, according to your local guidelines.