crushed aluminum cans
Steve Allen |

Ambitious goals

The U.S. aluminum can industry has set lofty goals with its new pillared approach to improve used beverage can recycling rates.

May 20, 2022

Last year, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), Washington, released a report with The Aluminum Association, Arlington, Virginia, showing the U.S. consumer recycling rate for aluminum used beverage cans (UBCs) in 2020 was 45.2 percent compared with 39.6 percent for glass bottles and 20.3 percent for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. It also showed that the closed-loop circularity rate for aluminum cans was 92.6 percent compared with 26.8 percent for PET bottles and between 30 percent and 60 percent for glass bottles.

Last year, the CMI said high demand for aluminum beverage cans necessitates increasing the UBC recycling rate, which also would enhance the resiliency of the domestic aluminum supply chain. The CMI plans to increase aluminum can recycling rates over the coming decades from today’s level of 45.2 percent to 70 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2040 and 90 percent by 2050.

“We set these goals because we saw a need to be clear where we’re trying to go,” says Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability at CMI. “It’s hard to make progress and be focused without a clear idea of where you’re trying to go. So, we wanted to make clear to external stakeholders what this industry is doing to get that recycling rate up.”

Expanding recyclability

To help the industry meet these goals, CMI plans to use four pillars of action. The pillars involve enacting beverage container deposit return systems on the state and federal level, increasing household and away-from-home recycling, improving recycling at material recovery facilities (MRF) and increasing consumer education on the environmental and economic impact of aluminum beverage can recycling. 

For the first pillar, the organization says it plans to target specific states where deposit systems have a chance of being implemented. Additionally, CMI says it believes the redemption value in current and new deposit systems should be higher than 5 cents to expand the incentive to recycle these containers.

Breen says some states CMI is focusing on include Illinois, Maryland and Washington because of the current social and political attitude toward recycling and because they have a high rate of UBCs going to landfills.

For the second pillar, the CMI will continue to support The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. Recently, that organization released kits designed to reduce contamination in curbside collection programs and at drop-off sites. The Partnership also regularly gives grants to communities to pay for recycling carts and recycling education.

“They're doing fantastic work, not only with single-family households, but they’re also looking at improving recycling for multifamily living situations,” Breen says. “From their data, we know that when we go from households that have no access, or just drop-off access, and they go to having curbside carts and robust education on what can go into the carts, we get more cans back.”

The CMI, in partnership with the Aluminum Association, launched the Curbside Value Partnership in 2003. It was spun off as an independent nonprofit organization in 2011 and changed its name to The Recycling Partnership in 2015. 

To increase away-from-home recycling, the CMI says it plans to partner with businesses and organizations including concert venues, stadiums and universities. CMI says it assists by introducing tactics that engage people in recycling UBCs. Breen is not disclosing what organizations CMI is working with, though the organization keeps a list of organizations, venues and others that have banned the sale of plastic PET bottles on its website here.

Under the third pillar, the CMI plans to continue efforts catalyzing the installation of can-capture equipment in MRFs. Last year, it launched the can capture grant program with Ardagh Metal Packaging, Chicago, and Crown Holdings, Philadelphia, and The Recycling Partnership. Through this program, five grants were provided to MRFs in the first year: Gel Recycling, Port Orange, Florida; Rivers Recycling in Kilgore, Texas; Curbside Management, Asheville, North Carolina; Independent Texas Recyclers, Houston; and a MRF owned and operated by the city of Milwaukee and Waukesha County in Wisconsin.

The grants helped fund investments in eddy currents and optical sorters that will capture an additional 71 million aluminum cans annually that will generate more than $1.15 million in revenue for the U.S. recycling system and energy savings that could power more than 28 million U.S. homes for one hour, CMI says.

Breen has communicated to The Recycling Partnership that the CMI would like to continue supporting grants for can capture equipment through them. The three factors the CMI asks The Recycling Partnership to consider when selecting grant recipients is incoming material volume, a willingness to share collection data and a history of maintaining its equipment.

This year, the CMI plans to expand the program with a new lease-to-own program for equipment that increases UBC capture. With funding from Ardagh and Crown, CMI is offering leases where it will pay the upfront cost of the equipment, and the MRF operator can make payments to the CMI using a portion of the revenue from the UBCs captured with the equipment. Breen says the CMI will not charge interest to the MRF operators through this lease program.

Breen says CMI is working with Resource Recycling Systems, Ann Arbor, Michigan, to count the number of cans missorted at certain areas within the MRFs and then calculate a return on investment (ROI) that will tell each MRF how much money it can make using the additional equipment. CMI also will provide an ROI calculator on its website for any MRF operator to download and use.

“Hopefully, that MRF operator will decide, ‘OK, I see the ROI that’s possible with can capture equipment,’ or ‘I don’t have the capital, but I will take the equipment you are offering as a lease and I will pay you back over time with a portion of the revenue made from the cans,” Breen says. 

For the fourth pillar, the CMI says it is developing a plan of action to increase consumer understanding of the importance of aluminum can recycling and the ability to collect and sell UBCs for cash. Roll out of the programs developed under this pillar will be slower, Breen says, though he hopes to have some lined up before the end of the year.

“This is a somewhat of a catch-all pillar. It's the squishiest in the sense that it is hard to do a communications effort that has clear measurement on the additional cans recycled,” Breen says. “Ideally, the communications activities will complement efforts in other pillars.”

CMI has recently added tools online to enable others to communicate about the importance of recycling aluminum beverage cans. It created an aluminum beverage can sustainability communications toolkit that has statistics with sources and downloadable graphics that anyone can use for social media or email. Also, CMI published an aluminum beverage can recycling impact calculator where someone can see the impact of recycling cans in a variety of metrics like hours of powering a U.S. home and number of smartphones charged.

Businesses that consume aluminum scrap, like JW Aluminum, an aluminum manufacturing company based in Mount Holly, South Carolina, support the new goals set forth by the CMI, says Ryan Roush, the chief commercial officer of JW.

"It’s a declaration that the industry is committed to advocating for container deposit programs based on best practices in the marketplace today,” Roush, whose served on various CMI committees, says. “We know they work, but we are trying to find ways to optimize them or invest in infrastructure and better programs.”

Possible dents

While the CMI is confident it can achieve the aggressive recycling goals it has set out, obstacles could hinder its plans.

Deposit systems are difficult to establish because some MRF operators believe the system could negatively affect them. For example, Ben Harvey, the former president of E.L. Harvey & Sons Inc. in Westborough, Massachusetts, told Recycling Today in an article published in October of last year that deposit systems could take away that commodity as a revenue stream. (E.L. Harvey was acquired by Waste Connections in the fall of last year.)

“We are reaching out to those that may not want to see new deposit systems and see where we can find common ground,” Breen says. “We want to engage and hear their concerns and see how we can all come together to create a system that’s efficient and effective.”

When it comes to recovering UBCs at a MRF, some operators either do not have equipment that is effective or don’t see a need to invest in it.  Breen says some MRF operators don’t realize the additional revenue they could be generating from more accurately sorting UBCs.

“People just don’t necessarily have the full picture of the environmental benefits of recycled aluminum and some have misconceptions about its recyclability,” Roush says. “We need to make sure consumers of beverages or anything else [packaged in] aluminum understand how to recycle properly.” He says if more UBCs are recycled, the effect on supply chains and the reduction of energy use would be “huge.”

Additionally, new curbside recycling programs can be costly to implement because of the number of bins and education required to properly recycle UBCs and other materials.

Sooner rather than later

The CMI says it plans to release a road map detailing the pillars by the end of June.

Breen says if the UBC recycling rate had been 70 percent in 2020 instead of 45 percent, an additional 25.6 billion more cans would have been recycled. This would have generated more than $400 million in revenue. It also would have saved enough energy to power more than 1 million homes for one year.

“We’re not satisfied; we want to get that recycling rate up to new heights,” Breen says. “This is important to maintain our position as a sustainable circular package. It's also how we’ll make more scrap available so we can build on our industry-leading 73 percent average recycled content, which is key to reducing the carbon footprint of the aluminum beverage can.”