In-Depth Information/Recycling Process
Aluminum -- a great economic story
Aluminum production has been ongoing for over a century and is still going strong. One of the key factors in the success of aluminum is its recyclability. In fact, recycling has proven so valuable—both economically and ecologically—that recovery and recycling has become its own industry, and a highly successful one at that.
A common practice since the early 1900s, recycling was a low-profile activity until 1968 when recycling of aluminum beverage cans vaulted the industry into public consciousness. Forty years later, aluminum recycling is supported by a national infrastructure, and by a national mindset that recognizes the importance, value, and ease of aluminum recycling. The aluminum recycling industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars developing a system of more than 10,000 recycling centers nationwide.
Sources for recycled aluminum include automobiles, windows and doors, appliances, and other products. For most Americans, however, it is the recycling of aluminum cans that seems to have the highest profile—and it’s no wonder.
In 1972, 24,000 metric tons of aluminum used beverage cans (UBCs) were recycled. By 2006, this had grown to over 525,000 metric tons.
It’s Not Just About Cans
While cans are the most visible part of the aluminum recycling story, they are far from the whole story. In fact, can recycling typically amounts to less than 30 percent of the tonnage of aluminum consumer products that are recycled.
The growth of the market for recycled aluminum is due in large measure to economics. Today, it is cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient to recycle aluminum than ever before. For instance, only about 5 percent of the energy required to produce primary aluminum ingot is needed to produce recycled aluminum ingot. In addition, to achieve a given output of ingot, recycled aluminum requires only about 10 percent of the capital equipment compared with primary aluminum.
A Profile of the U.S. Recycling Industry
The aluminum recycling industry is characterized by companies that fit one of the following profiles: large, integrated aluminum producers and independent manufacturers of wrought products (shaped for end-product use); producers of secondary-specification alloy ingot; and toll processors that reclaim metal for producers without taking title to the recoverable scrap or dross.
An aluminum recycler may perform at least one of the following processes:
o Used Beverage Container (UBC) Processing. Aluminum is recovered from UBCs and/or new scrap generated by the can-making process. This forms a closed-loop scrap source that recycles used cans back into new can sheet.
o Secondary Specification Aluminum Alloys: Aluminum is recovered from scrap of various sources to produce a specific alloy ingot for a customer. The end product is commonly called specification aluminum alloy and includes 18 different alloys, each of which has a specific chemical composition. The specific alloy is dependent on the customers’ intended end use, such as an automobile part or other consumer product.
o Remelt Secondary Ingot (RSI): Aluminum scrap is recycled into an intermediate product without a specific chemical composition. Independent fabricators, the large integrated companies, commonly use this technique, as do companies that melt scrap or dross to produce RSI or molten metal that is used in their plants for direct processing or sold in the market.
o Deoxidation ingot production: Aluminum is recovered for steel deoxidizer products, which are important in the steel-making process. The end product may take the form of various aluminum shapes: shot, cones, stars, or pyramid shapes.
o Dross Processing: Aluminum is recovered from dross, a by-product that forms in furnaces during normal melt processing. Dross contains aluminum ranging from 10 to 80 percent entrained with other metal oxide impurities formed during the melting process, including chloride, fluoride, and aluminum oxides. In dross processing, the aluminum is recovered from the dross either mechanically or by adding salts during the melting process. The recovered aluminum may be returned to a customer through a tolling relationship—as molten metal or RSI.
Excluding mills with remelt facilities, the U.S. secondary aluminum industry is comprised of approximately 50 secondary producers of foundry ingot, scrap ingot, billet, and process dross. Industrial aluminum recyclers range from small single plants to multi-plant operations. Production by individual companies ranges from 5,000 tons to 1 million tons of recycled metal per year.
Post-consumer scrap is the source of almost half of all recycled aluminum and it is recycled by a much larger and more specialized industry. While beverage cans and the packaging sector as a whole remain strong—and have initiated one of the world’s best examples of closed-loop recycling—the transportation market now holds even greater promise for future growth, with automotive use of aluminum continuing to grow.
As the demand for aluminum continues to grow, aluminum recyclers are "growing" their businesses by becoming more specialized to meet customers’ unique product specifications and market needs. By doing this, recyclers make it possible for customers themselves to specialize. In this new environment, customers can focus exclusively on product fabrication, while recyclers recover and deliver aluminum in exactly the right form for their needs.
For More information on recycling please see: Aluminum Recycling Casebook, The Aluminum Association, Inc., 1999.