Guest column: Failure to recycle cans is alarming

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 7, 2002

Aluminum can recycling and wasting in America: This was the focus of a study at a convention I attended. The information was comprised by the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va. Looking through the statistics gathered, it was shocking to see such waste. Here are some findings:

More aluminum beverage cans are being wasted than ever before. In 2001, 50.7 billion cans were not recycled in the United States. That is an increase of 165,000 tons over 1990 statistics. The total amount of aluminum wasted (landfilled) from 1990 to 2001 was enough to manufacture 316,000 Boeing 737 airplanes &045; or enough to reproduce the world’s entire commercial air fleet 25 times.

The mining and refining bauxite ore and other materials to make new aluminum containers generates large quantities of toxic solid waste, liquid effluents and air emissions. Virgin smelting and can manufacturing also requires vast amounts of electricity. Recycling aluminum will reduce soil erosion and habitat loss from strip mining, reduce toxic runoff from mining, and avoid landfilling, littering or incinerating aluminum. Electricity accounts for 65 to 70 percent of the total energy used in the aluminum-can production process. A single-serving aluminum can is the most energy-intensive beverage container in the marketplace today. However, it is also the most recyclable container.

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Americans wasted more than twice as many cans in 2001 as in 1981, and eight times more than in 1972. Keep in mind that there are fewer beverage containers using aluminum these days. With this increase in wasting by our population what can we do to help reverse the trend?

American lifestyles are changing. Beverages are increasingly being consumed away from home and away from the curbside recycling. Inflation has eroded the effectiveness of the 5 and 10 cent container deposit required in many states. A nickel in 1971 had over four times the buying power that it does today. Even the states with deposit laws have seen a decline in their recycling rates. Although we appear to be in a recession right now, the robust economy and low unemployment have reduced people’s incentive to recycle.

Some of the problem has to be placed on the beverage industry. Manufacturers need to find financial incentives to address the growing problem of waste. Maybe the program should be brought forth by the producers and consumers rather than taxpayers. If such a system were possible, it would reduce the need for the current curbside recycling program and the effort put forth to collect these materials in the manner we currently have.

Despite the implementation of thousands of curbside programs throughout the 1990’s, we continue to waste more. We purchased 8.8 billion more cans in 2001 than we did in 1991, but recycled 5.8 billion fewer and wasted 14.6 billion more. Had the beverage industry not taken steps to reduce the amount of aluminum used to produce the average can, the tons wasted would have been even higher.

All of this wasting is not just aluminum. It is also true of paper, tin, glass and plastic beverage and food containers. Landfills nationwide are still reporting that the largest single recyclable product they receive is paper. More and more plastic litters our landscape and the garbage numbers continue to increase every year. We have a responsibility to not just recycle at home, but when traveling and at our work place. Litter bags in our cars can hold recyclables for deposit into recycling containers later. Each of us can make a difference.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is head of the Freeborn County Environmental Services department.