Sunday, November 9, 2008

Closing the Loopholes

Loopholes, both in the manufacturing process and in the legislature, greatly hinder efforts to improve the recycling rate of aluminum cans. Aluminum is a valuable commodity, a source of revenue from which the beverage industry, waste haulers, scrap yards, retailers, and consumers all want to benefit, but few are willing to fund an improved and expanded recycling program. This battle has weighed heavily on the efforts of both state legislatures and Congress to pass the sweeping reforms necessary to overhaul the way in which aluminum is reclaimed and recycled, and this ongoing political infighting has, as it so often does, detracted from the issue at hand.

That said, the other major hurdle to the aluminum recycling dilemma lies in the political arena. One of the many loopholes in our current system of government allows large and powerful corporations to send lobbyists to Capitol Hill, and the beverage industry is no exception. These corporations spend tremendous amounts of money to persuade lawmakers to support legislation that would help the companies maximize profits, and to vote against bills that do not support their own special interests.

According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, “Bottle bills have been 'bottled up' in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress for over two decades, seldom getting to the floor for a full vote. They are generally defeated in small committees, often by a narrow margin. These defeats are due to the tremendous influence the well-funded, politically powerful beverage industry lobby wields over our elected officials.” Indeed, the opponents of bottle bill legislation have banded together to fight a number of ballot initiatives involving the implementation or expansion of bottle bill programs, both at the state and national levels.

With industry opponents spending more than 30 times what proponents of the bill are able to afford, it comes as little surprise that most of these bills are defeated. In 1996, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that the beverage industry spent more than $14 million between 1989 and 1994, aimed at persuading politicians to vote against the National Bottle Bill, and that in 1992, the U.S. Senate Committee members who did vote against the National Bottle Bill received 75 times the amount of PAC money that bottle bill supporters did.

Opponents argue that bottle bills would cause costs to rise among bottlers, distributors, and retailers, and cause jobs and sales to fall in the manufacturing sector. It seems to me that if they spent less money bribing politicians and more money on solving the problems caused by their production of disposable beverage containers, they could put millions of dollars into recycling initiatives, and still come out ahead! Opponents even claim that bottle bills would “rob” curbside recycling programs of valuable aluminum, thus reducing revenue. Although compelling, a closer look at these arguments shows them to be largely untrue.

First, curbside recycling programs are only available to 50% of the country, which means that half the population has no easy way to recycle. Although the number of curbside recycling programs has more than tripled since 1990, this method does not capture an acceptable amount of used beverage containers—the percentage of aluminum cans that are recycled has in fact decreased from 65% in 1992 to 43% in 2006. In states that have both bottle deposits and curbside recycling, research shows that the increased recycling rate comes largely from diverting cans from the waste stream and not from municipal recycling bins—unclaimed deposits range from 15-30% in most instances, and a number of these unredeemed cans appear in curbside bins.

Although the initial cost of implementing a deposit program is more expensive than other methods, it becomes more effective and cost-efficient in the long run. A number of companies, government agencies, and environmental organizations joined forces in 2000 and hired a bunch of consultants to analyze the cost and effectiveness of beverage container recycling of the current recycling methods. Among their findings was that, for an added expense of about 1.5 cents per six-pack, the recovery rates were 25 times higher in states that had bottle deposit programs than they were in states without these bottle bills.

Beverage distributors used to take empty bottles back to the plant to be cleaned, sanitized, and reused; if they were able to take back-hauling out of their system, they also have the ability to put it back in. Although beverage container waste costs money to recycle, just as it does to throw away, with the deposit method, producers and consumers shoulder the cost, instead of government and taxpayers. This creates a powerful incentive for manufacturers to eliminate unnecessary waste and reduce the amount of toxic substances used, and eases the burden on cities and states facing financial crises and budget deficits, as the cost is no longer borne by the taxpayers.

Some organizations are pushing for the implementation of extended producer responsibility, or producer take-back programs, which would require producers to take full responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, from product design to end-of-life management. Many countries began adopting these standards in the 1990s but, for whatever reason, the U.S. has been reluctant to sign on.

Although the U.S. clearly has a ways to go to cut wasteful production and utilize recyclable materials, there is much room for improvement. Concerned citizens should demand their politicians to step up and denounce the lobbyists, and call for a change in the way this country handles its recyclables. Most importantly, we need to keep used beverage containers out of the waste stream—a myriad of solutions exist, we just need to fight to ensure their implementation, and hope these changes will come about sooner rather than later.

Aluminum Can Recycling

Aluminum is made from bauxite ore and other natural resources. However, aluminum is the only material that is currently 100% recyclable, which means that, once the metal is made, it can be recycled indefinitely. The process of recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy that would be required to make the same amount of aluminum from virgin materials. Although some groups estimate the energy savings to be closer to 75-80% than the 95% that is so popularly quoted, they instead break down the savings by cost. In the 1980s, one ton of virgin aluminum ore was $1,933, while the same amount of recycled aluminum totaled a mere $313, which is a net savings of $1,620 per ton—still a significant amount.

Since most recycled aluminum is turned back into beverage containers, the EPA stresses that the materials must be source separated, clean, and dry so processors can “…generate only high-quality scrap. The recovered aluminum containers must be free from steel, lead, ferrous materials, bottle caps, plastics, glass, wood, dirt, grease, trash, and other foreign substances.” Once the aluminum is separated, it is condensed into 1,200-pound bales and shipped from the scrap yards to aluminum processing and manufacturing plants. After workers strip the outer decorations from the cans, the aluminum is shredded and fed into a melting furnace.

At this point, the recycled aluminum is mixed with virgin aluminum ore; the cans on store shelves today are made up of approxomately 40% post-consumer content. Once melted, the molten aluminum pours into ingots, or molds that cast the metal into large sheets (25 feet long and 20 inches thick) that are fed through large rollers, which reduce the thickness of the aluminum sheets all the way down to 1/100th of an inch—the thickness of a human hair! The metal sheets are then coiled and sent to can makers, who fashion the body and lids of the new cans, which then arrive at the bottling plants, ready to be filled and placed back on store shelves.

The entire process—from the moment a can is recycled to the time it arrives back on store shelves—takes only 60 days, which means that a recycled aluminum can could potentially be reused up to six times a year. The Aluminum Association estimates that recycling saves roughly 15 million gallons of crude oil annually, and it is doing its part to reduce the amount of aluminum that is wasted each year. One of the biggest changes made in the past 30 years is the amount of aluminum used to make each can. In 1972, cans weighed about three ounces each, but in 2006 this weight was reduced to a mere half-ounce per can. This means that 200 million fewer pounds of aluminum are used to create the 100 billion cans made each year.

The Aluminum Association has set a goal of a 75% recycling rate for aluminum cans, and strives to make aluminum recycling production a closed-loop process. The closed-loop recycling method all but eliminates the use of virgin materials by recycling and remanufacturing a used product into the same product, and the aluminum can is the perfect candidate for this type of recycling, as it can be recycled indefinitely. This method is already widely used in the iron and steel industries, and with great success. With the current recycling rate of aluminum hovering well below 50%, there is much room for improvement and also money to be made—the industry currently pays out $800 million dollars for recycled aluminum each year.

With so much potential for recycling aluminum, and the significant savings in cost and energy that would result, why isn’t the recycling rate already much higher than it is? Some of the problems can be chalked up to the “human factor”—recycling isn’t as convenient as it could be, selling scrap metal isn’t as profitable as it once was (thanks in part to inflation and to the reduced weight of aluminum cans—one pound of aluminum required more than 34 cans in 2006, up from a mere 22 cans in 1972), and the current curbside recycling programs aren’t capturing a satisfactory percentage of used beverage containers, as most of these drinks are consumed away from the home.

What, you might ask, are the other factors that hinder aluminum recycling in ths country? Stay tuned....