Closing the Material Loop
Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, making it the sustainable material of choice in the markets Alcoa serves. As a result, almost 75% of all the primary aluminum ever produced since 1888 is still in productive use. Recycling aluminum only uses 5% of the energy required to make new aluminum ingot. In addition, recycled aluminum creates 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than new aluminum.
The market for post-consumer aluminum, along with the material’s infinite recyclability, has created an economic incentive that has led to high recycling rates in many economies. For example, recycling rates for aluminum beverage cans—the number of used beverage cans (UBCs) recycled divided by the number of cans shipped from can makers to beverage fillers—exceed 90% in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Looking beyond packaging, aluminum used in the transportation, building and construction, and power system markets is recycled at rates near 90%.
Used Beverage Can Recycling
Alcoa operates the largest can reclamation facility in the world in Alcoa, Tennessee, USA. This facility re-melts enough UBCs to make billions of new aluminum cans each year. We also operate the largest can reclamation facility in the southern hemisphere at our Yennora facility in Australia.
In 2010, we expanded our Tennessee facility to increase its recycling capacity by nearly 50%. The expansion incorporated state-of-the-art environmental and fuel efficiency technologies and supports future flexibility to process other aluminum scrap types. This investment furthered our position as the leader in aluminum scrap processing technology.
All recycled metal from the cans processed at the East Tennessee plant is used directly to make new can sheet manufactured at our adjacent rolling mill. This high-recycled-content sheet is then converted again to beverage cans by our customers. We operate similar but smaller facilities in other countries, and we are in the process of building the first UBC recycling center in the Middle East/North Africa region to support our joint venture in Saudi Arabia. (View a video on the aluminum can recycling process.)
In 2008, we announced an aggressive goal to raise the U.S. UBC recycling rate to 75% by 2015. Later that year, The Aluminum Association also adopted this objective. In 2010, we extended our internal goal to reach a 90% global recycling rate by 2030.
By raising the U.S. recycling rate to 75%, the industry can avoid more than 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year and save the electricity equivalent of a 1.4-gigawatt coal-fired power plant. That’s enough energy to power more than 1.1 million average U.S. homes for one year.
In the United States, the recycling rate for aluminum cans has been as high as 69%. In 2011, the most recent year for data, the rate was 65%, up from 58% in 2010. In some U.S. states with deposit legislation, the recycling rate exceeds 90%.
One driver of the seven-point jump in the 2011 U.S. aluminum can recycling rate was the import of around 11 billion UBCs from outside the country to meet industry demand. Because of this, we believe that progress has not moved fast enough and more needs to be done.
We have outlined a number of possible approaches to help increase the UBC recycling rate, including:
- Supporting policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels;
- Driving behavioral change, or social shift, among consumers;
- Improving the collection infrastructure to make it and recycling more convenient; and
- Improving commercial alliances across the industry.
In 2012, we organized and hosted the Action to Accelerate Recycling Summit, an unprecedented two-day event for some 70 industry representatives, non-governmental organizations, thought leaders, and subject matter experts to explore voluntary collaboration to address lower-than-desired U.S. recycling rates for packaging. The event brought the industry together and led to pilot projects and strategic alliances to accelerate progress. This engagement underscored that meeting the challenge of driving higher recycling rates for aluminum cans requires collaboration and coordination across a complex system of stakeholders.
The summit was followed with a major announcement at the September 2012 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation announced funding for some US$2 million in recycling outreach activities in partnership with Keep America Beautiful. Details of these activities can be found below in the Consumer Awareness section.
In August 2012, we continued to strengthen our position as the U.S. leader in aluminum recycling by taking full ownership of Evermore Recycling, the largest aluminum recycling company in the world. We believe this important acquisition, now fully integrated into our operations, will expand recycling and increase our ability to effectively procure scrap from hundreds of sources around the world.
Recycling in Other Industries
Our drive to increase recycling rates and our products’ recycled content does not stop with aluminum can sheet. In the following and 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 used in automobiles provides a 40% reduction in weight and a subsequent 28% fuel-savings benefit compared to steel. In addition, approximately 90% of the aluminum in cars is recycled. Beyond the consumer and greenhouse gas (GHG) benefits, we are closing the loop with our automotive customers through scrap buy-back agreements.
In 2011, we invested US$25 million to expand our Barberton, Ohio (USA), wheels plant to add advanced recycling systems to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions. The first of its kind in North America, the process uses innovative technology to produce billet for new wheels from remelted scrap aluminum wheels, many of which will come back through scrap buy-back programs with our customers.
We launched an innovative post-consumer recycling program in the United States to collect used lithographic (litho) plates from printers, and these efforts contribute to an extremely high recycling rate for litho sheet. We estimate that the recycling rate for all used aluminum litho is close to 100% in the majority of regions across the globe.
In March 2011, we announced a US$10 million investment in Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), one of the nation’s largest collectors of electronics waste (e-waste). We took the 10% stake 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. For example, we expect the amount of aluminum used in laptop computers to grow by 30 percent between 2010 and 2013.
In April 2012, ERI opened a regional recycling hub at the site of a former Alcoa aluminum smelting complex at Badin, North Carolina, USA. This is the first southeastern U.S. location for ERI and a source of 200 green-industry jobs. This ERI facility also became one of the first commercial buildings to use our Reynobond® with EcoClean™ architectural panel, which helps clean itself and the air around it.
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.
We continue to drive initiatives to educate the public about the sustainability of the aluminum products they purchase. We especially 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 activities. We continually update a website dedicated to facts and information on recycling. Between 2010 and 2012, we dramatically increased the site’s downloadable content for individual consumers, teachers, and municipal recycling advocates.
We also provide industry leadership by serving as the board chair of the Curbside Value Partnership, a board member of the Southeast Recycling Development Coalition in the United States, and a leading member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Globally, Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation invested close to US$5 million between 2007 and 2012 to develop community-based recycling programs focused on the three pillars of consumer awareness and education, convenient access to infrastructure, and incentives.
The Clinton Global Initiative program added an additional investment in recycling awareness initiatives in 2012 and 2013, including:
- A national consumer campaign with Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council to reach 200 million people through traditional and digital media outlets;
- A net-impact green-action 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, Keep America Beautiful, and Planet Ark to fund recycling programs on a global basis;
- Partnerships with The Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee, Purdue University, Clemson University, and potentially three other U.S. universities 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 Keep America Beautiful to provide and promote recycling at four to six large cultural events.
The support announced at the Clinton Global Initiative augments Alcoa Foundation’s ongoing investment in many other outreach programs, including:
- A significant partnership with Keep America Beautiful to sponsor America America Recycles Day and 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 consultation.
We continue to work with partners around the globe to raise awareness to achieve the global recycling rate goal of 90%. For example, an expert sustainability advisor is working with local enterprises to develop and implement waste management and recycling plans as part of a three-year collaboration between Alcoa Foundation and the Chambre de Commerce de Bécancour in Québec, Canada.
These consulting services are being offered free of charge to small- and medium-sized businesses in two native Canadian communities in the Bécancour region. The partnership will reach 150 businesses and impact more than 3,000 employees and local citizens. By the end of 2013, a third of the businesses in the two communities are expected to receive the highest certification for properly managing 80% of their waste.
The two-year partnership between Alcoa Foundation, our Australian operations, and the Waste Reduction Group continues to increase recycling across Portland, Victoria’s public spaces, schools, and business districts. Recycling containers will be installed at the city’s botanic gardens, maritime museum, beaches, skate park, and basketball stadium with a goal of diverting a minimum of 5.5 metric tons of recyclables from the waste stream.
The containers are just part of the initiative to make the community more sustainable. Public outreach and education will help ensure correct usage of the recycling infrastructure and encourage the community to recycle at home, school, work, and play. (Learn more.)
Other examples of our global activities to promote consumer recycling include:
- Creation and development of a community recycling center in the village of Devon in the United Kingdom to educate the public about recycling and serve as a physical collection center. Proceeds go to Hospiscare, a local charity providing services for people with terminal illness.
- Development of recycling-based lesson plans and interactive activities for kindergarten through 12th-grade students across Australia through a grant to Planet Ark. These plans and activities will be promoted as a core component of National Recycling Week in 10,000 schools.
- Alcoa Foundation support of the Castlefields Neighborhood Recycling Initiative in the United Kingdom. The initiative seeks to overcome barriers to recycling by enabling a local council to work with the community to provide 10 neighborhood recycling stations and promote their use and raise awareness of local environment responsibility.
- Expanded support in Australia for the Don’t Waste It—Recycle It program to capture the 40% of recyclable materials used away from home. Bin audits show the program exceeded its targets in 2012, with a 55% reduction in away-from-home materials going to the landfill from venues where bins were placed.
- A grant to the Planet Ark Environmental Foundation in Australia to support the development of a Recycling Near You website and information service to provide consumers with education and resources they need to drive recycling rates higher.
- In Montreal, Canada, a grant covering the placement of recycling bins at the Cité de la Santé hospital and two area attractions. It’s estimated that the bins at the hospital will divert more than 100 metric tons of recyclable material from the landfill.
Our recycling outreach has produced an added benefit of having our Facebook followers increase from 17,500 in early 2012 to more than 25,500 by year’s end. Facebook has enabled us to promote our support of America Recycles Day, as well as many other recycling initiatives. These include our aluminum EverGREEN tree concept, which was initially developed in 2010 and adopted by numerous high school science clubs in subsequent years.
We ramped up our use of social media beyond Facebook in 2012. We now have close to 10,000 Twitter followers and more than 30,000 followers on LinkedIn.
We use social media to promote outreach tools like our iPhone application, called Aluminate™, as well as Pass the Can™ Facebook app. The free apps, downloadable from the iTunes website and Facebook, help consumers set recycling goals, track progress, and encourage friends and peers to recycle. (Download the Aluminate and Pass the Can apps.)
Social media also will enable us to continue promoting our YouTube video “An InCANvenient Truth,” which tracks the progress of Carl the Can Man as he makes the community service rounds in an effort to boost the U.S. recycling rate. The video received more than 213,500 YouTube hits by the end of 2012, as well as positive comments from viewers.
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