Recently released data* reveal that over one trillion aluminum beer and soda cans have been thrown in the trash—not the recycling bin—since Americans began buying these cans more than thirty years ago. The trillion wasted beverage cans weigh in at 17.5 million tons—a quantity of scrap aluminum worth about $21 billion at today's market prices.
Over the last four decades, the damages from aluminum manufacturing and associated infrastructure include thousand of square miles of habitat loss on every major continent, the displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous people, and the release of tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gasses and other toxic air and water pollutants.
While we are steadily trashing millions of tons of cans that could be used to make new cans and other aluminum products, multi-national companies like Alcoa and Alcan are forging ahead to build new aluminum smelters in pristine environments all over the world, including Brazil, Australia, Mozambique, and Iceland.
If we recycled 85% of our cans instead, as we could with a national beverage container deposit law, or "bottle bill," we could save about 600 thousand tons of aluminum metal annually —eliminating the need to build one or two brand new aluminum smelters.
*The first disposable all-aluminum cans were marketed in 1964, but t he Aluminum Association, an industry trade group, only began collecting sales and recycling data in 1972. Since 1990, the Container Recycling Institute has used U.S. Department of Commerce data to adjust the Aluminum Association recycling rate to account for imported scrap cans (cans not originally sold in the United States). This adjustment is consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste’s method of calculating recycling rates for other materials in the wastestream. Details on the calculation methods, total number of cans wasted, and environmental impacts cited here are available from CRI. See "Two methods of calculating the aluminum recycling rate."
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