Aluminum cans are the most sustainable beverage package on virtually every measure. Aluminum cans have a higher recycling rate and more recycled content than competing package types. They are lightweight, stackable and strong, allowing brands to package and transport more beverages using less material. And aluminum cans are far more valuable than glass or plastic, helping make municipal recycling programs financially viable and effectively subsidizing the recycling of less valuable materials in the bin.
Most of all, aluminum cans are recycled over and over again in a true "closed loop" recycling process. Glass and plastic are typically "down-cycled" into products like carpet fiber or landfill liner.
Following are a series of key sustainability performance indicators highlighting the sustainability performance of the aluminum can in 2016.
You can download the full report including detailed methodology here.
Industry Recycling Rate
An indicator of stewardship of the metal, the industry recycling rate shows how much aluminum can scrap (including imported and exported cans) the industry recycles as a percentage of U.S. shipments. This rate has grown dramatically since it was first reported in 1972 at 15.4 percent.
In 2016 the industry recycled 56.9 billion cans for an industry recycling rate of 63.9 percent, a slight decline from 2015 but above the ten-year average of 61.7 percent. The rate declined largely due to a drop in the volume of used beverage containers (UBCs) consumed by the industry as well as a large drop in UBC exports. Continued low metal and scrap prices as well as a strong dollar both contributed to this trend.
Consumer Recycling Rate
The consumer recycling rate for aluminum cans, which measures the amount of domestic aluminum can scrap recycled as a percentage of cans available for recycling, declined significantly in 2016 to 49.4 percent. Like most recycled commodities, aluminum prices have declined in recent years. This drop in scrap price may have prompted sellers to hold onto the metal longer, waiting for prices to recover. When coupled with an even sharper decline in the all-in price for aluminum (London Metal Exchange + U.S. Midwest Premium), scrap consumers may have also had more incentive to purchase and substitute other metal sources (primary or other secondary aluminum) into their stream. The rate provides a snapshot of how well municipal recycling programs are performing nationwide though it can still be impacted by year-to-year fluctuations in metal flows and commodity prices.
Aluminum cans are unique in that they are most often recycled directly back into themselves meaning that the average can has a very high percentage of recycled content. This means that aluminum cans have more than 3X the recycled content than EPA estimates for glass or plastic, with 70 percent recycled content on average.
Since it takes just 8 percent of the energy to produce aluminum from recycled material versus producing new aluminum, high recycled content is a good indicator of the can’s environmental footprint. The recycled content calculation includes metal from both post-consumer and post-industrial scrap sources and complies with ISO reporting standards.
Value of Material
Aluminum cans help make municipal recycling programs possible. Many such programs rely on re-selling recycled material and the high value of aluminum in the recycling stream effectively subsidizes the recycling of less valuable materials in the bin. The report finds that aluminum can scrap is worth $1186 per ton on average versus $226 per ton for plastic (PET) and -$17 per ton for glass.
It is notable that the price of scrap among all materials has declined in recent years, putting downward pressure on recycling rates.
The data reflects an average price for recyclable materials from February 2015 – February 2017. The implications are clear -- without aluminum, very few curbside pickup programs would be financially viable.
A strong indicator of material management and industrial efficiency, the weight of the average aluminum can has declined significantly – nearly 40 percent – since tracking began in 1972. After all these years, can makers continue to innovate, making more cans with less metal while maintaining strength and durability.
Lighter cans mean better shipping efficiency and less waste. Aluminum cans are more than 17X lighter than standard glass bottles, allowing brands to package and transport more beverages using less material.
Use Phase: Transportation & Refrigeration
A 2016 study by ICF International found that the combined greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the transportation and refrigeration of beverages in aluminum cans are lower than those associated with beverages in glass or plastic bottles under the same conditions. You can download an infographic on the full report here.
On a per liter beverage basis, emissions associated with transporting and cooling aluminum cans are 7 to 21 percent lower than plastic bottles and 35 to 49 percent lower than glass bottles, depending on the size of the comparative bottles as well as the types of refrigerators in which beverage is cooled prior to consumption. On a per container basis, the associated emissions of beverage packaged in a 12-oz aluminum can is 45 percent lower than in a 12-oz glass bottle and 49 percent lower than in a 20-oz plastic bottle when delivered and chilled in small markets and convenience stores.
The study analyzed the standard serving size for each container, which can vary, as well as a per-ounce equivalent . In both scenarios, the shape, dimensions, weight and material of the aluminum can offered higher packaging and cooling efficiencies that resulted in less energy needed and lower emissions. Noted Marian Van Pelt, Vice President at ICF International: “Across all scenarios studied, aluminum has lower associated use-phase emissions than comparable glass or plastic containers.”
More Can Be Done
While the aluminum beverage can is by far the most recycled and recyclable beverage container on the market today, more can be done to increase can recycling in the United States. In 2016 44.5 billion cans – $760 million worth of aluminum – ended up in a landfill, a major loss to the economy and the environment. Making a can from recycled aluminum saves 92 percent of the energy required to make a new can.
The energy saved by recycling 100 percent of aluminum cans could power 4 million homes for a full year.
The Aluminum Association engages in educational activities and advocacy efforts to drive increased recycling of aluminum across the supply chain.
Several of our member companies also participate in the Recycling Partnership, a multi-material coalition of businesses active with local municipalities to improve residential curbside recycling programs and infrastructure.
To download the full report -- “The Aluminum Can Advantage: Key Sustainability Performance Indicators 2017” -- including detailed methodology, click here.