Aluminum Can Maintains Position as Most Sustainable Beverage Container
As millions of Americans gear up for picnics, concerts, hikes and other outdoor activities this summer, a new report released today by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute finds that aluminum beverage cans remain the best choice for environmentally-minded consumers.
According to the new report -- "The Aluminum Can Advantage: Key Sustainability Performance Indicators 2016" -- consumers recycle aluminum beverage cans at rates 13 – 24 points higher than glass or plastic (PET) bottles. Aluminum cans also contain more than 3X the amount of recycled content than glass or plastic at 70 percent on average. The study also found that the value of aluminum can scrap is more than 4X that of plastic or glass. The high value of recycled aluminum material effectively subsidizes municipal recycling programs nationwide.
"Everyday, millions of Americans enjoy beverages out of lightweight, portable and highly recyclable aluminum cans," said Heidi Brock, President & CEO of the Aluminum Association. "And as summer season kicks off in earnest – when more cans are sold than during any other time of the year – it's good for consumers to know that cans are not only the convenient choice but also the sustainable choice."
"When it comes to sustainability, only one beverage container delivers unrivaled benefit—the aluminum can," CMI President Robert Budway. "That's because cans are the ultimate with regard to recycling. In fact, aluminum is endlessly recyclable, and cans are the single-most recycled beverage package in the United States. In a world that is increasingly concerned about scarce resources, aluminum cans have the ability to be recycled over and over, forever, without losing strength or quality."
The new study tracks a number of different sustainability "key performance indicators" for the aluminum beverage can including industry recycling rate, consumer recycling rate, recycled content, value of material and weight. Taken together, these indicators provide a holistic view of the sustainability performance of the can as a guide for consumers, customers, non-governmental organizations, policymakers and other stakeholders across the value chain. Key findings in the 2016 report include:
- The aluminum industry recycling rate, which measures the amount of used aluminum can scrap, including imported and exported cans, that get recycled as a percentage of U.S. shipments was 64.3 percent in 2015, a slight decline from 2014 but above the ten-year average of 60.4 percent. This reflects nearly 57 billion cans recycled. The rate declined as the volume of used beverage containers recycled by the industry dropped about 4 percent in 2015, a likely consequence of a drop in scrap prices year-over-year.
- The consumer recycling rate for aluminum cans, which measures domestic consumer recycling behavior, was 54.5 percent in 2015, a 2-point drop year-over-year but higher than the 10-year average rate of 51.7 percent.
- Aluminum cans contain more than 3X the recycled content of glass or plastic, with 70 percent recycled content on average. This compares to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated 23 percent recycled content for glass and 3 percent recycled content for plastic bottles. The unique, closed-loop nature of aluminum can recycling means that cans often have far higher recycled content than competitive packaging types.
- The study shows aluminum can scrap is worth $1,367 per ton versus $310 per ton for plastic and $0 per ton for glass. The high value of material for aluminum helps make municipal recycling programs financially viable and effectively subsidizes the recycling of less valuable materials in the bin.
- The weight of the average aluminum can has declined more than 38 percent since 1972 to 12.97 grams today. A standard 12-oz glass bottle is about 15X heavier than an aluminum can, which allows brands to package and transport more beverages more efficiently using less material.
Since lows reported in the early 2000s, both the industry and consumer recycling rate for the aluminum beverage can have risen around 10 to 15 points and held near these levels for the past five years.
"While we saw a slight drop in aluminum can recycling in 2015 amid a decline in scrap prices, we're pleased with the general trend line toward increased recycling over the past decade," said Heidi Brock. "The Aluminum Association remains committed to doing what it can – in partnership with our membership – to recover and recycle as much aluminum as possible."
Each year in the United States nearly 40 billion cans – about $800 million worth of aluminum – end up landfills, a significant loss to the economy and the environment. The energy saved by recycling 100 percent of aluminum cans in the U.S. could power 4 million homes for a full year. The Aluminum Association supports efforts to increase recycling by advocating for smart municipal recycling policies and through public education on can recycling. Several Aluminum Association member companies also participate in the Recycling Partnership, a multi-material non-profit working with local municipalities to measurably improve residential curbside recycling programs and infrastructure.
Across all sectors of the industry, the recovery and recycling of aluminum is on the rise. The industry today collects about 11.6 billion pounds of aluminum each year for recycling – more than twice the amount collected in the 1980s and nearly 20 percent more than averages in the early 2000s. At the same time, more than 70 percent of U.S. aluminum production today is in producing secondary, or recycled, metal.