Closing the Material Loop
Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, helping make it the sustainable choice in the markets Alcoa serves. Approximately 75% of all the primary aluminum ever produced since 1888 is still in productive use.
According to a January 2014 life cycle assessment by the Aluminum Association in North America, recycling aluminum today only uses 8% of the energy required to make new aluminum ingot and creates 92% less greenhouse gas emissions. Both primary and recycled aluminum production have experienced reductions in energy demand in recent years due to energy-efficiency improvements. However, the industry has seen the most dramatic improvement in primary production energy efficiency as processes improve and less-efficient facilities are curtailed.
The market for post-consumer aluminum, along with its infinite recyclability, has created an economic incentive that has led to high recycling rates in many economies. Recycling rates for aluminum used beverage cans (UBCs) exceed 90% in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Looking beyond packaging, aluminum used in the transportation, building and construction, and lithographic markets is recycled at rates near or above 90%.
Used Beverage Can Recycling
We operate the largest can reclamation facility in the world in Alcoa, Tennessee, USA. This facility uses state-of-the-art environmental and fuel-efficiency technologies to re-melt enough UBCs to make billions of new aluminum cans each year.
All recycled metal from the cans processed at the Tennessee plant is used to make new can sheet manufactured at our adjacent rolling mill. This high-recycled-content sheet, which is Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM, is then converted to beverage cans by our customers. We operate similar but smaller facilities in other countries, and we will open the first UBC recycling center in the Middle East/North Africa region in 2014 to support our joint venture in Saudi Arabia. (View a video on the aluminum can recycling process.)
We support an aggressive industry goal to raise the U.S. UBC recycling rate to 75% by 2015. A 75% recycling rate would mean the industry can avoid more than 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually and save enough electricity to power more than 3.1 million average U.S. homes for one year.
The 2012 U.S. recycling rate, which is the most recent year for data that is published by the Aluminum Association, was 67% compared to 65% in 2011. In some U.S. states with deposit legislation, the recycling rate exceeded 90%.
The driver of the increase in 2012 was the import of almost 13 billion UBCs from outside of the country to meet industry demand. We are working within the industry to better refine the methodology for calculating the true U.S. consumer recycling rate, but it is clear that more needs to be done.
We have outlined a number of approaches to help increase UBC recycling, including:
- Supporting policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels;
- Improving the collection infrastructure to make it and recycling more convenient;
- Driving behavioral change, or social shift, among consumers; and
- Improving commercial alliances across the industry.
Since we organized and hosted the Action to Accelerate Recycling Summit in 2012—a two-day event bringing together the packaging industry and non-governmental organizations to address U.S. packaging recycling rates—a number of projects have been initiated. These include a national AdCouncil public awareness campaign; Recycle@Work, which is an initiative to increase the number of workplace recycling programs; and an infrastructure and awareness program in the Southeastern United States led by the Curbside Value Partnership.
Recycling in Other Industries
Our drive to increase recycling rates and the recycled content in products does not stop with aluminum can sheet. In virtually every other market segment, we are rapidly driving connections with our customers and consumers to bring back recyclable material for use as a secondary feedstock.
Aluminum is experiencing dramatic growth in the automotive sector. Ducker International projects that North America aluminum body sheet content per vehicle will grow four times by the end of 2015 and 10 times by 2025 from 2012.
Aluminum solutions for automobiles can be up to 50% lighter than steel, delivering higher fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, approximately 90% of the aluminum in cars is recycled. We are closing the loop with our automotive customers through scrap buy-back agreements.
Our innovation in the development of the Alcoa 951 technology, which is enabling the shift to aluminum-intensive vehicles, also includes a unique, closed-loop recycling step for aluminum stamping scrap. We bring like-alloy aluminum scrap back to our auto sheet mill for reprocessing into new auto sheet using a fraction of the energy and with commensurate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2013, the advanced recycling system at our Barberton, Ohio, USA, wheels plant was operating at full capacity, and we are on schedule to open a second casthouse in Mexico in the fourth quarter of 2014. The first of its kind in North America, the Barberton process uses innovative technology to produce billet for new wheels from re-melted scrap aluminum wheels, many of which can be returned through scrap buy-back programs with our customers.
Based on estimates from the scrap industry and lithographic customers, we estimate that the recycling rate for all used aluminum lithographic sheet is close to 100% in the majority of regions across the globe. We recycle this sheet into new sheet products.
We hold a 10% stake in Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), one of the nation’s largest collectors of electronics waste (e-waste), to help ensure consumer electronics are recycled or disposed of properly. This is especially relevant due to the increasing use of aluminum in consumer electronics and the ever-shortening life span of these products.
ERI operates a regional recycling hub at the site of a former Alcoa aluminum smelting complex at Badin, North Carolina, USA. The facility was one of the first commercial buildings to use our Reynobond® with EcoClean® architectural panel.
In July 2013, we announced a closed-loop recycling program with Boeing to significantly increase the recycling of internal aluminum aerospace alloys used during the production of Boeing airplanes. The program will initially recycle approximately 8 million pounds of aerospace scrap from Boeing facilities back into new aerospace parts produced by Alcoa.
Beyond buyback programs with our customers, we are an active member of the Aircraft Fleet Recyclers Association (AFRA). AFRA is recognized as the leading global industry association dedicated to pursuing and promoting environmental best practices, regulatory excellence, and sustainable developments in aircraft disassembly, as well as the salvaging and recycling of aircraft parts and materials.
Use of Recycled Metal
Recycled metal from products like UBCs, end-of-life vehicles, demolished buildings, and discarded consumer products continues to be an important source for our basic material, and its importance will keep growing. In 2013, we purchased and recycled 584,495 metric tons of aluminum scrap.
Aluminum Metal Recovered from Purchased Scrap
Thousands of metric tons
We continue to drive initiatives to educate the public about the sustainability and recyclability of the aluminum products they purchase. We are focused on increasing broad participation in recycling aluminum cans, which represent the single largest secondary recovery opportunity in the world.
Part of our awareness effort is educating the general public on the basic economic and environmental advantages of increased recycling. For example, we continually update a website dedicated to facts and information on recycling.
We provide industry leadership by serving as the board chair of the Curbside Value Partnership and a board member of the Southeast Recycling Development Council in the United States. We are also a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Globally, Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation invested approximately US$6.3 million between 2007 and 2013 in education and community-based recycling programs. An important focus has been infrastructure support in public places, such as installing aluminum recycling bins throughout New York City’s Central Park and Times Square.
Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation announced funding for some US$2 million in recycling outreach programs in partnership with Keep America Beautiful (KAB) at the September 2012 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). The programs, initiated in 2012 and continued in 2013, include:
- A national consumer campaign with KAB and the Ad Council to reach 200 million people through traditional and digital media outlets;
- A net-impact, green-action Facebook app called Small Steps, Big Changes that will reach 50 college campuses around the world and 500,000 students, with many activities focused on recycling;
- Sponsorship of the largest youth-led aluminum recycling drive in the United States in partnership with DoSomething.org. The event will engage at least 40,000 youth at more than 4,000 schools;
- Launch of the Pass the Can™ Facebook app, where Alcoa Foundation donates US$1 for each click up to a maximum donation of US$75,000 to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), KAB, and Planet Ark to fund recycling programs on a global basis;
- Partnerships with The Ohio State University, Purdue University, and Clemson University to create tailgating recycling opportunities;
- Sponsorship of a pilot program to increase the recycling rates for aluminum pet food cans; and
- Launch of a program with KAB to provide and promote recycling at four to six large cultural events.
The CGI commitment augments Alcoa Foundation’s ongoing investment in many other outreach programs. These include a significant partnership with KAB to sponsor Recyclemania, a major college campus recycling contest in the United States, and sponsorship of the U.S. College and University Recycling Coalition for webinars and programming.
We continue to work with partners around the world to raise awareness to achieve the UBC global recycling rate goal of 90%. Activities in 2013 included:
- Canada: A grant from Alcoa Foundation funded the installation of recycling bins in 30 schools to collect used aluminum and plastic beverage containers and ink cartridges. The income gained from the recovery of these materials will allow Fondation Mira to purchase a specially trained dog for a physically challenged child.
- Hungary: The Göncöl Foundation partnered with Alcoa Foundation to develop a game that will help students ages eight to 14 understand the connection between their consumption and recycling habits and the subsequent impact on the environment, with a focus on biodiversity. The game will be distributed to teachers, along with a guide for use within a curriculum on waste and recycling. The program will be implemented in Hungary first and then throughout Europe via the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication website.
- Italy: Alcoa Foundation is supporting Italy’s Consorzio Formazione Logistica Intermodale in producing an educational video for students on the lifecycle of an aluminum can to promote recycling in the Veneto region. The video will be featured at schools and public events, reaching thousands of local students and community members.
Globally, we use social media to promote outreach tools like our iPhone app, called Aluminate. The free app, downloadable from the iTunes website, helps consumers set recycling goals and track progress.
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