When I was a kid, my dad drank his Old Style beers from a can, which is how my mom drank her sodas. Our vegetables came in metal cans, too. Nowadays you’re more likely to find beers in glass bottles (although cans are making a comeback), sodas in plastic ones, and veggies in plastic freezer bags.
While I’m not regretting that we don’t eat mushy canned peas anymore, I do regret that aluminum cans have fallen out of favor when I read about how aluminum and other metals are endlessly and efficiently recyclable … unlike plastic. Even in a landfill, a soda can will break down after about 200 years, which is more than twice as fast as the 450 years that a plastic bottle could take, if it ever truly does decompose, that is.
I’ve put together some of the more interesting facts I’ve learned about metal recycling — read on to learn more about why seeking out recyclable metal containers over other, less-recyclable vessels is a good move for green living.
1. Steel is the most recycled material in North America. The metal comes not only from cans but also from construction scraps, automobiles, and appliances, and it can be turned right back into steel that can be used in the same applications.
2. Recycling aluminum uses 90 percent less energy than making primary-production (virgin) aluminum! This is likely the reason that almost half of North American’s aluminum supply comes from secondary production (recycled aluminum).
3. Metal recycling is fast. It can take as little as 60 days for an aluminum can to be recycled and returned to the supermarket shelf as another can of soda!
4. In a landfill, aluminum and tin cans will stick around for decades. It can take as long as 50 years for a steel food can to decompose, and as long as 200 years for aluminum to break down. This isn’t as long as plastic bags or diapers, but it’s still quite a long time!
5. In some states, you can be paid to recycle aluminum cans. Thanks to Bottle Bills in 10 states, beverage cans and bottles can be returned for a small deposit refund, usually around 5 cents per bottle or can. There are those who’ve even turned collecting and returning cans into a moneymaking gig.
6. Don’t forget metal lids — they’re often recyclable too! People often overlook the metal lids that come on glass bottles, or even the tops of opened food cans. And while the metal itself is recyclable, some curbside programs don’t accept caps because they are too small to be sorted by the equipment. So check with your recycler first, and if they are accepted try putting these lids inside of larger containers of the same kind of metal so they won’t get lost in the shuffle.
7. Precious metals found in electronics are recyclable, too. In fact, metals like palladium, silver, gold, and platinum, which are found in electronics components, are among the most important metals to be recycled. This is because recycling them for production of new electronics means a reduction in environmentally damaging mining. Be sure to take your electronics to an e-cycler so they can break them down and retrieve these valuable components.
8. Scrap metal recycling is an important and essential part of the manufacturing industry. In 2015, the scrap recycling industry in the United States transformed more than 130 million metric tons of materials into raw material commodities, according to the Institute of Scrap Industries, Inc. More than half of this was steel, iron, and nonferrous metals like aluminum, copper, and lead. Using these secondary materials instead of virgin materials saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Hopefully after learning more about metal recycling, you’ll be even more inspired to make sure your cans and other metals stay out of the landfill!