Aluminum streams back to recycles

Thanks to the efforts of ecology clubs, community cleanup projects, and people who just want to earn some extra cash, aluminum companies have been hauling in record collections of scrap for recycling.

Aluminum can recycling increased 130 percent last year over 1979 at the American Aluminum Company (Alcoa), the country's largest producer. In cans, that's a jump from roughly 3.2 billion recycled in 1979 to about 7.8 billion in 1980. Just in the first six months of this year, Alcoa has recycled 5.5 billion cans.

Why the rapid growth?

One major reason is that the aluminum industry has been winning the battle with the steel industry in supplying cans for beverages. In 1977, about 50 percent of cans were aluminum. Aluminum has well over 60 percent of the business now, and by 1985 would be supplying 92 percent of the material for beverage cans, according to an Alcoa forecast.

When emptied, those cans are coming back to recycling. Alcoa, other aluminum companies, and some users are succeeding in convincing the public of the merits of recycling. Besides, it pays. Some people are even making a living picking up old cans for recycling.

Significantly, "aluminum cans do not reflect the current market and aren't really affected by downs in the economy," says Thomas Langton, director of light-metals forecasting at Chase Econometrics, an economics consulting firm.

Aluminum companies get scrap from a lot of places other than used cans. They get it from shop floors in the construction industry, from auto scrap dealers, and from the shop floor in their own factories. But when the economy is hurting , construction, the auto industry, and even aluminum production goes down -- and so does the supply of scrap.

But beverage production is up and so is its need for cans -- Mr. Langton says. The breweries are doing especially well, he adds, and have stepped up recycling campaigns with their consumers. Anheuse-Busch Inc. recently started the Container Recovery Corporation in the Boston area to collect aluminum at shopping centers and then shred and melt it at the company's Nashua, N.A., plant.

"The largest single market for aluminum is in cans. There is more aluminum in US cans than in all aluminum production in West Germany," Langton says.

So even when production is down, as it is now, according to Langton, the recycling sector still thrives -- all because of the can, the beverage companies , and the consumer.

For aluminum companies, recycling is more good business sense than good environmental sense, though the latter does play an important part. It takes 95 percent less energy to manufacture a product from recycled aluminum than it would to make that same product from bauxite -- the ore aluminum comes from.

Since Reynolds Metals Company first started its subsidiary, Reynolds Aluminum Recycling Company, on a consumer recycling compaign in 1968, recycling aluminum has saved the company 7 billion killowatt-hours of electricity and more than 4 million tons of bauxite. Last year, recycled aluminum accounted for 18 percent of its domestic capacity for all aluminum products. It was also a record year for recycling.

Of course, not all consumers return cans and scrap out of the goodness of their environment-minded hearts. Some of them need a little push, a little incentive. Bottle bills in some states make it inviting by exchanging a deposit for used cans. And the aluminum companies themselves are trying to put those consumers in a returning state of mind.

In addition to its scrap collection centers, Alcoa has come up with a new product -- the reverse vending machine. After you're done with your drink, you insert it back in the machine, which weights it and pays you according to the weight.

Since 1968, Reynolds has opened over 2,000 collection centers across the country which pay for scrap. Many of them are mobile, sent to collect scrap at shopping centers and then cart it to shredding plants.

The going rate among the national recyclers in 23 cents a pound, with about 24 cans to the pound. At Reynolds, miscellaneous scrap like house siding and tubing gets 20 cents a pound, and castings like barbecue grills and lawn mower casings fetch 15 cents a pound. There are bonuses for bringing in large amounts of aluminum in competitive areas. When the program started 12 years ago, recycled cans were going for 6 cents a pound.

No one doubts that recycling will get bigger in the aluminum industry. "It makes sense environmentally and economically," Mr. Langton says.

But a spokesman for Alcoa has his eye on one area in particular -- the auto industry. Quite a bit of scrap gets rescued from auto shredders already, but Alcoa predicts even more in the '80s. Aluminum in cars has been increasing steadily, from an average of 100 pounds a car in 1977 to 126 pounds last year. The spokesman says that "1981 cars are estimated to have an average of 130 pounds, and because cars need to be lighter and more economical, this could go way up in the '80s. Your car would be worth a lot more when its life is finished."

And that, Alcoa says, is incentive to squeeze the last penny out of the automobile and pass on the scrap to the aluminum companies.

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