Beth Schmitt, director of recycling programs for Alcoa, discusses the company’s work to increase the recovery of aluminum cans.
Alcoa is synonymous with aluminum. The Pittsburgh-based company is the leading producer of primary aluminum and fabricated aluminum and the world’s largest miner of bauxite and refiner of alumina. However, the company also understands the important contribution recycling makes to its sustainability efforts as well as to its bottom line, which is why it has introduced a number of initiatives designed to encourage consumers to recycle used beverage cans (UBCs).
Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation have donated recycling bins to schools and organizations across the U.S. in addition to supporting voluntary programs such as the Curbside Value Partnership, which provides funding for recycling infrastructure and consumer education.
In late 2012, Alcoa announced its most recent investment, Action to Accelerate Recycling, which seeks to drive collaborative voluntary action to recycle.
Alcoa Director of Recycling Programs Beth Schmitt talked with Recycling Today Managing Editor DeAnne Toto at the time the company introduced its Action to Accelerate Recycling initiative, which also coincided with the release of the UBC recycling rate for 2011.
“I’m proud of what the company is doing around Action to Accelerate Recycling,” she says. “A lot of people are talking about recycling. I’m proud of the fact that Alcoa is actually investing in it and is doing something to drive up recovery of this really important secondary raw material.”
She says the company sees numerous benefits from recycling, including a 95 percent reduction in the energy needed to produce aluminum from recycled metal compared with raw ore. “That energy savings is a real motivator for us as a company,” Schmitt says. “The magnitude of green house gas emissions (GHG) is also cut by almost the same degree. Those two factors really are foundational to our overall sustainability strategy as a company.”
Schmitt says these environmental benefits translate into bottom-line benefits for the company.
Recycling Today (RT): To what do you attribute the 7 percent jump in the UBC recycling rate in 2011?
Beth Schmitt: I would attribute that to a combination of factors, really. For the last several years, we know that several new MRFs (material recovery facilities) have come online and that recycling rates are continuing to climb in deposit states as well as more municipalities. In addition, private waste haulers are responding to consumer demand to add recycling services and to increase the types of materials that are recovered in local recycling programs. I believe there’s an increase in awareness of the value of secondary natural resources that are going into landfills and the need to divert those resources.
The only other thing I’d add is that we are somewhat cautious about being too optimistic about the rate jump. We are really happy that it increased as much as it did [in 2011], but we also know that a portion of that rate increase can be attributed to the increase in aluminum can, or UBC, imports. That is primarily because we are still not getting enough cans from U.S. consumers. It really has led us to realize that we need to continue to work on consumer awareness as well as working to increase convenient access to [recycling] infrastructure. Because we have a demand for cans, as an industry we are increasing the amount of cans that we are importing from outside the U.S., such as from countries like Mexico, Canada and elsewhere.
RT: Why do you think the recycling rate for aluminum cans far surpasses those of other beverage containers? What has the industry done successfully to communicate the value of the UBC?
Schmitt: The rate for aluminum can recycling is roughly more than double that of other containers. I believe that consumers recognize that aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable and no can need ever see a landfill. Because cans can be recycled an infinite number of times, I believe more consumers of beer and beverages are beginning to understand that and are beginning to understand the closed-loop process as awareness around how recycling systems work grows.
That closed-loop process is unique, really, to aluminum cans in regard to other packages. That the process can happen over and over again in the course of 60 days is a pretty significant fact that I think more and more users of packaging understand. As they gain that awareness and understanding, it is leading to higher and higher recycling rates.
RT: Do you think more people recognize an inherent value in a can as opposed to a plastic bottle or a glass bottle?
Schmitt: In my role within our company, I continue to work with both municipalities and organizations that recognize the intrinsic value of aluminum. It is the only material that consumers have consistently been paid to recycle over the course of the last 30 years or so. Regardless of whether the metal price is going up or down, there is still a positive value to recycling aluminum cans. It not only helps to support a lot of charitable organizations that rely on aluminum can recycling to survive but it also supports individuals as they supplement their incomes. That intrinsic value is really what sets aluminum apart from any other beverage container.
RT: What steps is the industry taking to increase the overall UBC recycling rate? Have you identified a target that you’d like to reach?
Schmitt: I guess it was in 2008 when Alcoa led the industry to set the recycling rate target of 75 percent. That was happening at a time when, either because of consumer awareness waning or a variety of factors, the recycling rate stagnated or started to drop.
The industry is working on I guess what we would call a three-legged stool of what we believe consumers need to have in place to increase that recycling rate: certainly, awareness of how and where and why you should recycle; convenient access to infrastructure to be able to recycle; and incentives.
You mentioned the intrinsic value a couple of minutes ago. The intrinsic value of aluminum does provide that incentive for consumers to get engaged in the recycling process. We have worked with partners, which would include organizations like Keep America Beautiful (KAB), the Curbside Value Partnership (CVP) and the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC), to try to improve each one of those legs of the stool. But we also have been involved in doing awareness programs of our own. There is a new Facebook app that Alcoa created and [launched in September 2012] called Pass the Can that will engage consumers in crushing a can and passing it to one of their friends or a group of friends on Facebook to try to increase awareness to recycle. Each time that can is passed, additional information is provided to consumers about the importance of [recycling], how it happens and how they should get involved. Each time that message is passed on to another friend, the Alcoa Foundation is donating $1 to one of three different organizations.
That is an example of how we are trying to use new media to get the word out and to create not just awareness but more of an element of social action that would engage people in putting peer pressure on their friends, which we know works, and to encourage more people to recycle at a local level. Getting people to persuade other people to take action is where we think the next phase of our work can go in terms of increasing awareness and getting to a 75 percent recycling rate.
[Pass the Can] follows the Aluminate app that we launched in 2010 and the viral video that we published to use new media to try to get the word out. Those are the kinds of things that as an individual company we are doing. As I said, we are also engaged with KAB and others.
The other thing that was announced [in September 2012] in Chicago was the next phase of our commitment to reaching that goal at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Our sustainability director (Kevin Anton) [spoke] on a panel and [talked] about a couple of other things that we are going to be launching in the next year or two to continue to drive that rate to where we need it to go.
RT: Can you give me an example of what some of those things might be?
Schmitt: The CGI commitment is called Action to Accelerate Recycling. We have been working in partnership with other companies as well as with KAB to increase the recycling rate through recycling programs focused on education and activation. The Pass the Can Facebook app is part of that overall commitment. We are also working very closely with KAB to develop and launch a national multimedia awareness campaign that will be run by KAB and the Ad Council. We are working very closely to get additional partners onboard that effort so that we can accelerate it and expand it to include a social action component.
There are several other elements. For example, we’ve committed to work with several different universities to collect additional cans through football tailgating season and in other places where we know there is a high volume of aluminum cans used, and unfortunately that may be a time when, if they are not recycled, those cans could go into the waste stream. We’ve segmented where we know cans are being used and we are targeting those specific audiences to try not just to increase awareness but also to increase the capture of those cans.
RT: Ideally, how much of the company’s feedstock would you like to see be in the form of recycled material?
Schmitt: I believe it is safe to say we could recycle as many cans as we can collect. That is why as a company we are focused more on recovery and that recycling rate. Ideally, we would like to collect and recycle 100 percent of the cans that are produced if they could be recovered. There would be ample demand for that recycled content if it could be collected.
We are certainly interested in getting material back for the other segments of our business beyond packaging.
RT: Would you like to talk about the other sectors that you’re targeting material from and the challenges there?
Schmitt: Yes. The infinite recyclability doesn’t just apply to aluminum cans. It is really a core part of our overall product strategies and sustainability strategy and indeed it is a part of Alcoa’s DNA. We are working very actively in other segments, such as automotive, the aerospace markets, wheels—we have a huge wheels business and are very active both with our business-to-business customers as well as with the consumers of those wheels to get those back so that we can put them into feedstock to make new wheels—and also consumer electronics.
More and more mobile devices are being made with aluminum. The iPhone 5 launch is a great example of how the product life cycle of many of the mobile devices and other products, laptops and the like, are shorter and shorter. We want to get those materials back so that we can continue to incorporate that recycled content into all of our products.
A couple of years ago, we invested in Electronics Recyclers International (ERI, headquartered in Fresno, Calif.). We took a 10 percent stake in that company in order to play a more active role in getting that material, that metal, back out of that waste stream because of the shorter product life and the importance of reclaiming that material at the end of those short product life cycles.
RT: Have you had to incorporate any additional sorting technology at your facility as materials get more complex?
Schmitt: We continue to refine and to invest in our processing, both our practices and our equipment, to make sure we have a clean stream of aluminum coming into our recycling facilities. That is something that we are continually improving.
RT: How does Alcoa’s takeover of Evermore factor into the company’s strategy to increase its use of recycled materials?
Schmitt: I have worked with the Evermore folks for the last several years and I am really thrilled about the fact that they are now solely owned and are a full part of Alcoa. Evermore, as the world’s premier recycling company, has great relationships with literally hundreds of scrap dealers across the U.S. and, in fact, outside the U.S.
I think the Evermore takeover is going to give us a great opportunity not only to increase our volume and quality of UBCs in the future but it is also a great opportunity to work, I guess you could say at the grassroots level, to increase UBC recycling rates across the United States. I am looking forward to working with them in my role as the director of recycling programs to try to get more grassroots level action underway that would help not only increase the volume of cans coming in but would help our suppliers build their businesses as well. It is an exciting time for us, and we are really thrilled to be the sole owner of Evermore.
Beth Schmitt is director of recycling programs for Alcoa, with corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.