Beer and Pop Cans Are Not Being Recycled Because Car and Airplane Makers Don't Like Recycled Aluminum

Remember how aluminum cans are "100 percent recyclable into pure aluminum"? They lied.

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View from the top of a dozen silver beer cans

Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

We go on about how recycling is broken, and noted earlier that even aluminum recycling was a mess. Now it turns out that used aluminum cans are piling up in scrapyards because the aluminum producers don't want them.

All Aluminum Isn't Created Equal

Aluminum is always pitched as being 100 percent recyclable – and it is – but there are different grades and alloys of aluminum. According to Bob Tita of the Wall Street Journal, car and airplane makers want the pure new stuff and are willing to pay more for it. "Old cans are less versatile than other scrap. The makers of airplane and car parts prefer not to use aluminum made from recycled cans."

Producing aluminum for cans isn’t as profitable as rolling sheet for car companies. Aluminum rolling mills are paid about $1 a pound above the market price for the raw-aluminum ingots they use to make auto-body sheet, compared with about 35 cents a pound for converting can sheeting.
Aluminum body of a partially assembled car

Recycled cans might be good enough for making new cans, but not for an F150, Tesla, or a 737-8 and certainly not for a MacBook Air. So the rolling mills would rather roll car body sheet than can sheet and the cans pile up.

Insufficient Domestic Can Sheet

Meanwhile, Molson-Coors and Pepsi still need cans, so they buy imported aluminum, even though it is costly thanks to tariffs. The director of packaging procurement for Molson-Coors says, “We’d prefer to purchase domestic can sheet, but as of right now there is not enough to supply the domestic market.”

According to Tita,

Can-sheet imports have increased more than 200% since 2013, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. About 70% of imports last year came from China despite the 10% tariff the Trump administration levied on imported aluminum last March. The administration also has granted exemptions on 362,000 metric tons of imported can sheet, most of it from Saudi Arabia.

So everyone who feels OK drinking their beer and pop out of aluminum cans because "hey, they're recycled" should realize that they are not, there is more money in cars so nobody is bothering, and they are just going to waste. Meanwhile, the can sheet is coming from ... Saudi Arabia? They are probably just re-exporting somebody else's aluminum.

mining bauxite
Mining bauxite, the source of alumina.  © Getty Images

As we noted in earlier posts, making virgin aluminum is hugely destructive, energy-intensive and has a big carbon footprint, even when it is made with hydropower in Canada and Iceland. And your beer can is not being turned into a Tesla; it apparently can just be turned into another beer can.

Bar chart of refillable beer bottles
 Lloyd Alter with info from Heather Rogers

So let's not pretend that aluminum cans are a sustainable choice, 100-percent recyclable, as has been touted for so many years. They were lying to us. It is down-cycling into a lower-quality metal. Perhaps you are perfectly happy drinking out of a Saudi Arabian beer can, but you could also demand refillable glass like they use everywhere else in the world. We need to build a circular, closed-loop economy, and there's no room in it for one-way cans.