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While the initial production of aluminum is a waste-intensive, energy-intensive process that has negative environmental and social impact through deforestation and contamination of waterways, aluminum has an incredibly high recycling rate (e.g. 98.2% in Brazil). Furthermore, it can be recycled with only a fraction of the energy input of the initial production (5%).

For this reason, I am wondering how I can support the recycling and reuse of aluminum, while not supporting its continued new production. Are there certain products or packaging materials I should avoid buying because they cannot be recycled or because they cannot be made from recycled aluminum?

  • 3
    As usual: Refuse, reduce, recycle - first of all try to minimize the presence of alumimium in your life - then recycle the rest. – Erik Aug 20 at 6:56
  • @Erik, minimizing aluminium is one option, but because aluminum can almost perfectly be recycled, substitung it might not always be the best choice. For example, canned foods are often in aluminum cans (or steel/tin). Both glas and plastic as alternative packaging is more difficult to recycle. – RollingCompass Aug 20 at 7:08
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    Side note: From BBC The elements podcast on alumin(i)um (bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rnv8s) Yes it is indeed perfectly recycable, but we are still producing new material because the current 'stock' is tied up in buildings and misc objects. The material becoming available out of this stock for recycling is far less than the demand. – Jan Doggen Aug 20 at 7:30
  • @Erik Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rehome, replant, rot :) – gerrit Aug 20 at 18:26
  • Everyone overlooks the amount of aluminum used in aircraft, cars, office buildings, long-distance power transmission lines.... There's more to the aluminum issue than empty coke cans. Kudos for wanting to make things better, though. – user6891 Aug 21 at 18:44
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I'm not going to answer the support the recycling part of your question, but the avoid new production part.

One stream of aluminium goes in to the coating of plastic for packaging food (coffee, crisps, etc). Although this layer is extremely thin (0.0055-0.1 mm) the total amounts are large. Recycling this metalized plastic (metalized film) is doable but complicated, and therefore not often done.
That leaves landfills or burning to get rid of the material.

When burning this stuff, the aluminium ends up in the incinerator bottom ash. Non ferrous metals in the ashes can make up 0.5-3.0%, of which 55-70% is aluminium*. Here again, the metals can be extracted, but this paper mentions that in 2006 in Europe an estimated 2.3% of metallic Al was left unrecycled.

The same process goes for Tetrapaks (Laminated aluminium with cardboard).

There exist separate Tetrapak recycling processes, but I've never heard of metalized film recycling.

So trying to avoid both forms of packaging is a good choice, because you reduce the amount of primary Al that will only sparsely be recycled.
E.g. ground coffee is also available packaged in clear plastic plus a paper wrapper. You can immediately separate those yourself and 'feed' them into separate recycling streams.

* Note that these numbers is not just from metalized film, but also from aerosol and drinking cans.
I was unable to find separate numbers for films and cans in the time I spent on this.

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You (probably) cannot do it on demand side.

The reason this is impossible is that 99% of aluminum users don't care if their aluminum comes from recycled sources.

Let's say there's need for 100 units of aluminum, out of which 50 units are new, and 50 units are recycled.

Now, you introduce one unit of aluminum consumption, with the requirement that it comes from recycled sources. Guess what? Now there are 101 units of aluminum, out of which 51 units are new and 50 units are recycled. Your purchase of recycled aluminum increased its price, making somebody else switch to new aluminum.

You can (perhaps) do it on supply side.

Simply said: purchase shares of an aluminum recycling business. Then you know you own a part of the aluminum recycling operation.

This, however, very probably makes someone sell the shares in aluminum recycling business to you, but you at least now know you own (part of) the recycling business. So it's your recycled aluminum, not somebody else's recycled aluminum. And, you are more immune to price changes of recycled aluminum, although your business is still affected by the price of aluminum waste.

A similar argument is true of many other things:

  • To sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, you should own a carbon sink (a forest).
  • To use clean electrical energy, you should own hydropower and wind power.
  • I agree for aluminium because, as you said, most people won't care if it's recycled or not, but I don't think your reasoning holds for CO2 and renewable energy. CO2 emissions and renewable energy are not free markets. Governments stimulate renewable energy and carbon sequestration with subsidies. Many countries also enforce CO2 emission limits to comply with national laws and international agreements. – THelper Aug 21 at 7:25
  • @THelper So your argument is that it's better to spend money on lobbying to increase carbon taxes and renewable subsidies than building actual renewable power sources? Otherwise I don't see how you're contradicting anything in juhist's answer. – Luaan Aug 21 at 9:48
  • @Luaan What I was trying to say is that juhist's reasoning about supply-and-demand is only valid for free, open markets. It doesn't hold for markets that are heavily influenced by government regulations and subsidies such as renewable energy and CCS. In these cases ownership is not the only way of making an impact. What is most effective is a different discussion. – THelper Aug 21 at 10:16
  • The supply of recycled aluminium is not fixed. If demand and prices increase, it becomes more worthwhile to extract it from waste. – vclaw Aug 21 at 13:09
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You can advocate for a carbon tax. When fossil fuel energy costs more, recycling is more economically valuable. Cheap power means easier to mine new aluminum. We really need a carbon tax for many reasons. They used to make a zillion tons of aluminum in the United States Pacific Northwest with dirt-cheap hydro power. But when electricity got expensive in California, they sold them the electricity and recycled aluminum.

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I think the answers have been supplied here although perhaps not made specific enough. Cans are usually fully recycled. But aluminium used in conjunction with other things is much more difficult to recycle and a large quantity is being thrown away. By not buying plastic you can avoid these mixed materials. Glass is almost always best although, as pointed out aluminium does not require so much heat when recycled. However glass can be reused a few times as it is, without re-melting it, and aluminium can not.

  • 1
    It sound like your answer could be summed up as "don't buy products that mix aluminum with other materials", correct? – LShaver Sep 27 at 19:28

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