The used beverage container (UBC) recycling rate reached 67 percent in the United States in 2012, the highest rate since the early 1990s and the second highest since the Aluminum Association began tracking the rate in 1972, according to that national trade group.
The 62 billion cans recycled by the U.S. aluminum industry represent a significant energy and cost savings, says Matt Meenan of the Aluminum Association, Arlington, Va., a trade association representing U.S. aluminum producers, recyclers and industry suppliers. The energy saved from recycling UBCs in 2012 equaled 19 million barrels of crude oil, which could fuel more than 1.7 million cars for one year, according to the association’s website, www.aluminum.org.
“We were pleased to see the industry recycling rate of aluminum cans tick up in 2012,” Meenan says.
The key driver of increased UBC recycling in recent years, Meenan says, is the addition of imported UBCs into the U.S. In 2012, for example, the industry imported nearly 13 billion cans, almost double the amount from just five years ago, he adds.
U.S. recyclers often import UBCs from Mexico, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Poland and other countries, according to the Aluminum Association.
Derek Prichett, vice president of global recycling at Novelis Inc., an aluminum producer based in Atlanta, says, while the company is “happy to see an increase” in UBC recycling, “it’s important to really understand the numbers.
“A large part of the reported increase in the recycling rate is due to the import of UBCs into the U.S. from other countries,” Prichett says. “Having said this, the collection rates are increasing slightly, but there remains great opportunity to do even better to recover more postconsumer beverage cans in the U.S.”
Increasing domestic consumer recycling of UBCs remains a priority, Meenan admits.
“Nearly $900 million worth of aluminum cans ends up in landfills each year, representing a major lost opportunity for the economy and the environment,” Meenan says.
Connect the dots
Kevin Lowery of the aluminum firm Alcoa, headquartered in Pittsburgh, says the growth in the UBC recycling rate shows that more UBCs are being consumed in the U.S., but he would like to see more UBCs available domestically.
How can the industry increase the amount of UBCs in the recycling stream from the get-go? Importing them from additional areas geographically is part of the answer, Lowery suggests. However, what would be even better for the industry, he says, is if the consumer recycling rate for UBCs within the United States increased along with import rates.
“The [UBC] recycling rate today is heading in the right direction but … the reality is that it comes down to imports are driving that recycling rate, which is not a bad thing; it’s a very good thing. It speaks to the value of the aluminum can that someone would take a bale of aluminum cans and ship them across the world to somebody who wanted to pay for the imported material,” Lowery says. “But what it also says is that we in this country need to do a better job of getting the UBCs out of the traditional consumer streams.”
The aluminum industry works to increase consumer recycling, according to the Aluminum Association’s website, by encouraging lawmakers to consider recycling and recyclability as part of energy-efficiency initiatives.
Individual companies also support recycling initiatives by educating consumers and providing increased access in local communities across the country, according to the trade group’s website.
Lowery says making recycling more convenient for people as well as educating residents on the benefits of recycling are two solutions to get UBCs back from domestic consumers.
“Having people understand the importance of recycling and helping to connect the dots will help people understand the benefits of aluminum cans.”
Lowery continues, “Once you begin to educate people about aluminum’s infinite recyclability, you see light bulbs go off over their heads.”
When more people recognize that UBCs are not trash, the higher the consumer recycling rate will be, Lowery says.
Prichett says UBC demand in North America is strong and healthy whereas supply “has been increasing slightly to meet demand levels mostly seen from increased imports of UBCs.”
He says while Novelis has grown its UBC consumption in other parts of the world, its North American consumption has remained stable. “Novelis has been able to buy all of the UBCs we need to satisfy our operational needs in North America,” Prichett adds.
As for how the company’s latest product launch has affected the UBC market, Prichett says it is too soon to tell.
In May 2013, Novelis introduced its Evercan™, a beverage can made with a minimum of 90 percent recycled aluminum, what the aluminum rolling and recycling firm says is the industry’s first independently certified, high-recycled-content aluminum designed specifically for the beverage can market.
Novelis says Evercan aluminum sheet has been certified for high-recycled content by SCS Global, a third-party auditing firm. When combined with the can end made of a different alloy during the can-making process, the Evercan will enable beverage companies to market beverages in standard 12-ounce aluminum cans certified as made from a minimum of 70 percent recycled content, the company says.
Prichett says it is Novelis’ goal for the Evercan to become the global standard for the aluminum can. “We absolutely are looking to create a step change in recycling rates and to achieve a completely closed-loop process,” he says.
However, Lowery says the Evercan “will have no impact on the UBC rate.”
Alcoa’s Tennessee operations—which produce only aluminum can sheet—has averaged 90 percent recycled content for the past four years, Lowery says. Every minute at the Tennessee operations, enough aluminum sheet to produce 150,000 cans goes through the plant’s continuous cold mill (CCM), according to Alcoa’s website.
“Most people in the marketplace know we have had a 90-percent-recycled-content stream coming out of our Tennessee recycling stream, and it’s not aspirational; we’ve been doing it,” Lowery says.
For 2014, Lowery says Alcoa is hopeful that the supply of and demand for UBCs is going to be more of the same, what he refers to as the “vibrancy” of the market. Demand for UBCs is strong, and supply has been good for Alcoa, which is pleased with where the overall market dynamics are, Lowery adds.
“We think 2014 is going to be another strong year,” Lowery says. “So long as informed people know the value of that aluminum can, you’re going to continue to see the imports.”
Prichett says Novelis does not anticipate significant shifts in UBC demand in 2014 but supply is expected to continue to grow slowly, as it has for several years. “We expect to see continued stability and a balanced market as we look ahead in 2014.”
The author is associate editor of Recycling Today magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.