Aluminum Can Recycling

Despite being one of the easiest materials to recycle, aluminum cans are all too often thrown away. In fact, according to statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, barely more than half of all cans sold in the United States end up getting recycled. That’s a real bummer, too, as not only does recycling aluminum save landfill space, but it also reduces carbon dioxide emissions and the considerable amount of energy required to make it.

In fact, until the 20th century—when chemist Charles Michael Hall invented a cheaper way of refining bauxite into aluminum—aluminum was considered incredibly rare and expensive, so much so in fact that the Washington Monument was given an aluminum tip in 1886 to demonstrate its importance and value. Despite Hall’s method, however, aluminum creation still requires a tremendous amount of energy. In fact, the amount of energy saved by recycling even a single can is enough to power a television for three hours! That is simply one of the many reasons why Our Happy Planet believes everyone should have aluminum can recycling information and tips about recycling aluminum cans so as a global community people can start living a more sustainable lifestyle.

But if that isn’t reason enough to consider recycling aluminum cans, however, check out these 10 interesting facts about aluminum can recycling.


10 Aluminum Can Recycling Facts

  1. Recycling aluminum cans releases 95% less carbon dioxide than refining enough aluminum from bauxite to make fresh cans. This is significant because the Hall process for creating aluminum releases more than 1 ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of aluminum produced. Recycling aluminum cans saves more 90 million tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere each year. That’s a lot of greenhouse gas!
  2. Not only does recycling aluminum cans save 95% of the carbon dioxide released in original aluminum production, but it also requires 95% less energy. That’s a huge energy saving, especially when you consider how energy-intensive aluminum production can be. As we mentioned earlier, the amount of energy saved by recycling even a single aluminum beer can is enough to power a television for three hours—or long enough to watch an entire sporting event!
  3. In fact, 99% of all beer cans and 97% of all soft drink cans are made from aluminum. When you consider how many canned beverages most Americans drink each year, that adds up incredibly quickly.
  4. Americans throw out between 3 and 4 tons of aluminum each year, making it roughly 1.5% of all waste.
  5. This is in part because Americans only recycle roughly half of all aluminum cans bought each year. Even just increasing that to 75% would save up to 2 tons of trash each year!
  6. Bauxite ore, which needs to be mined in order to create aluminum, is generally strip-mined, meaning the soil is removed as is any vegetation. Not only can this in of itself create environmental degradation, but often strip mining has environmentally damaging byproducts as well, as does the aluminum refinery process. Every can that is recycled means less bauxite that needs to be mined and less aluminum that needs to be refined, which in turn helps limit environmental destruction.
  7. In fact, the waste from fresh aluminum refining can be incredibly toxic, including toxic chemicals such as arsenic and chromium and radioactive materials like uranium and radium. And given that every ton of aluminum produced creates a full ton of waste, that’s a lot of waste—all of which have to be stored in impoundments, lest they create even greater environmental destruction. Recycling can help prevent that waste production!
  8. Even better, aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. That is, there’s no limit to the number of times the metal can be reused. That isn’t always the case with other recyclables, which in turn makes aluminum a pretty high value as scrap. In fact, of the more than 1 billion tons of aluminum ever recycled, up to 75% may still be in use today!
  9. And aluminum cans alone can cover the cost of collection and processing for most recycling centers because of their value as scrap. As a result, aluminum recycling can help subsidize the cost of other less valuable forms of recycling for municipal programs and recycling centers.
  10. While most recycled aluminum ends up back as cans (for beer or soda most of the time), the second-largest user of recycled aluminum is the automotive industry, which uses it in part to make cars lighter and more efficient; as of 2011, the average car contained nearly 300 pounds of aluminum, much of which may have been recycled. Lighter and more efficient cars get better gas mileage, which also helps save on fossil fuel consumption. Recycled aluminum also frequently ends up in construction materials (such as gutters, siding, and cables, for instance) and other transportation materials (including in planes, trains, and ships).


How to Recycle Aluminum Cans

When it comes to aluminum can recycling, it really couldn’t be much easier. Not only do many municipalities offer curbside pick-up, but because aluminum recycling is one of the most valuable forms of scrap that recycling centers might deal with, it’s rare that a recycling center won’t accept aluminum.

Let’s look at each of your options for aluminum can recycling:

  1. Putting your cans out for curbside pickup
  2. Taking your aluminum cans to a recycling center
  3. Donate your aluminum cans to a school or charity

Depending on where you live, one, two, or all three of those options may apply for you and your aluminum cans. A few steps will apply no matter which of three options you choose, though, so let’s talk about those steps first.

Start by rinsing your aluminum cans out before setting them aside wherever you store your recyclables. For most cans, simply rinsing the cans a few times with hot water will be enough to remove any residue; for sticky or otherwise extraordinarily messy cans, however, you may need to let them soak full of hot water. Cleaning your cans in this way to remove any residue helps eliminate odors, which in turn lessens the likelihood of bugs or other pests showing up in your recycling.

While you no longer are required to crush your aluminum cans before recycling, it can still be a good idea if it helps you save space in your recycling area. And about that recycling area: You should have designated space for your aluminum cans so that when it’s time to put them out for curbside collection, take them to a recycling center, or drop them off for a local school or charity fundraiser, you can do so in an organized manner. If you have a designated recycling container provided by your municipality, great, but if not, it’s easy enough to set aside a large plastic tote, for instance.

Finally, determine the best way to ensure your aluminum can recycling is easily picked up (for instance, which day is your curbside pickup, or when are the best times to take your recyclables to a local recycling center). Make it part of your normal weekly routine and it will be much easier to get into an aluminum can recycling rhythm.

A few other things to consider: If you live in one of the 10 states with a bottle bill, you can take your aluminum cans to a recycling center for cash—generally 5-10 cents per can. That can add up quickly! Those 10 states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Just make sure that if this is an option in which you are interested that you do your homework; each state may have their own restrictions. And if you live in a different country, check your local rules and programs—there may still be a way to recycle your aluminum for cash.

Finally, a word of caution: Use caution when sorting through and cleaning your aluminum cans, as the rough edges can easily cut your skin.

Lastly, we recommend using Earth911’s Recycling Locator to find an aluminum can recycling location near you.


Should Aluminum Cans Be Crushed Before Recycling?

It used to be that aluminum cans needed to be crushed before they could be recycled. That’s no longer the case. However, you may still wish to crush your aluminum cans for simple space considerations.

Especially if you are recycling larger quantities of aluminum cans, those cans can take up a significant amount of space rather quickly. Beyond that, though, it can actually get a little more complicated, and depend on how you are recycling your cans.

For multiple-stream recycling, for instance, where everything is already separated, crushed cans can help save space and consequently make transporting recyclable materials more efficient. For single-stream recycling, however, where recyclables are separated at a Materials Recovery Facility, aluminum cans should not be crushed—because it’s easier for the sorting machinery to sort out intact cans.

In general, though, it’s far more important that you are recycling aluminum cans than whether or not you are crushing those aluminum cans—especially as 40 million cans end up in landfills each year.

What Aluminum Can Be Recycled?

This may depend on your local recycling program. In general, nearly every recycling program will take aluminum cans. Many other aluminum products, however, can also generally be recycled. It just depends on what the recycling program is, really.

For instance, many curbside recycling programs will accept most household aluminum beverage and food products provided they are clean, including aluminum cans, aluminum foil, aluminum baking trays, and even aluminum pie pans.

Industries that use aluminum may have their own programs. For instance, construction contractors frequently use aluminum, whether in siding, gutters, or cables; contractors may have their own recycling programs if working on a large enough scale, or they may work with scrap yards that take their aluminum. Similarly, many automotive parts are collected for recycling when they are replaced; individual shops may have their own recycling programs (if they’re part of a larger network of shops, for instance) or they may work with scrap yards. In fact, more than 90 percent of aluminum used in building and automotive industries are recycled at the end of their use, serving as feedstock that is then melted down by aluminum recyclers to then be used in the secondary production process.


Why Is Aluminum So Easily Recycled?

Aluminum cans are quite possibly the most easily recycled recyclable in the United States, in addition to being the most valuable beverage container when it comes to recycling. In fact, each year more than $800 million is paid out for aluminum cans. A huge part of why so much is paid out is because aluminum cans are 100% recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely. In fact, it is currently cheaper, faster, and more energy-efficient to recycle aluminum cans than it ever has been before!

As a result, nearly a third of all aluminum used in the United States is derived from recycled materials. Not only is aluminum the most abundant metal on earth, but an average of more than 100,000 aluminum cans are recycled every single minute.

When it comes to easily recycling aluminum cans, consider these 10 aluminum can recycling tips:

10 Tips for Aluminum Can Recycling

  1. Rinse and drain the aluminum cans. If your cans aren’t clean, they can attract insects and pests. Instead, store them clean and dry.
  2. Consider crushing your cans to save space. The one exception may be if you are taking your cans to a multiple-stream facility. Still, it may be worth considering how much space you can save in your vehicle if you crush cans before hauling them.
  3. If you collect cans to recycle them, exercise caution. While aluminum cans can readily be found in trash cans or on the side of the road, making them a relatively easy revenue source if you’re recycling for cash, you can also easily cut yourself on the sharp edges. As a result, it’s in your best interests to use gloves or tools that can protect your hands.
  4. Keep your cans clean. If you use your cans for ashtrays, for instance, that can make them harder to recycle later.
  5. Separate your aluminum cans out from other recyclables. This is especially true in states with bottle bills. 
  6. In bottle bill states— California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont—keep your aluminum cans separate so you can take them somewhere. At 5-10 cents each, returning your aluminum cans for the deposit can add up to a significant total pretty quickly.
  7. If you live in a bottle bill state (or close enough to a bottle bill state to make driving to one worth it), find a facility that will both take your aluminum cans and pay for them. As noted previously, at 5-10 cents each, returning your aluminum cans for the deposit can up to a significant total pretty quickly.
  8. If you don’t live in a bottle bill state, it may still be worth calling local scrap yards and asking what they pay for aluminum. An additional benefit of working with scrap yards is that you get cash for more than just aluminum cans; while you’ll need to clarify with each individual scrap yard what aluminum (and other metals, for that matter) they’ll pay for and at what rates, this can be another way to make some cash.
  9. Because aluminum can be recycled forever, it has great recycling potential. And while cans do generally get recycled back into cans, aluminum cans (and other aluminum products) do eventually have to be downcycled, which means that the higher grade aluminum you have, the more valuable it can be. 
  10. As a result, consider other aluminum you might have that scrap yards might be willing to pay for, including automotive parts, siding, gutters, and more. Just keep in mind that every state and municipality may have different laws about what materials you can scrap, so be sure to check regulations first. (For instance, some places say automotive parts can only be scrapped by auto shops.)


Can Aluminum Be Recycled Indefinitely?

For the most part, yes! While aluminum does eventually have to be downcycled, the truth is it can be recycled over and over and over again. For instance, most high-grade aluminum can be recycled as high-grade aluminum for a bit before it works its way down to aluminum cans and aluminum cans can be recycled back into aluminum cans (and can, in fact, be turned around in 60 days or less).

Eventually, the aluminum needs to be mixed with higher-grade aluminum or bits of fresh aluminum in the recycling process, but the truth is that aluminum really can be recycled indefinitely. And roughly a third of all aluminum out there in use today is recycled aluminum; in some industries (such as construction and automotive, for instance) up to 90% of all aluminum gets recycled.

Recycling Cans for Money

Even better, aluminum cans can quite readily be recycled for money. If you live in a bottle bill state— California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont—you can pretty easily return aluminum cans for the deposit of 5-10 cents each. Even if you don’t live in a bottle bill state, scrap yards may be willing to buy your aluminum from you. As a result, its often well worth making a few phone calls to determine what forms of aluminum your local scrap yards accept and what rates they pay, as well as for how long they are willing to honor that rate.

How Much Are Aluminum Cans Worth?

In bottle bill states, it can be easy to determine exactly what each can is worth. All you need to do is look up what the deposit is in that state, and voila, you know exactly how much your aluminum cans are worth, whether that’s 5 or 10 cents each.

In other places, however, it depends on your local scrap yards and the rates they offer. Additionally, most scrap yards pay by the pound, so you’ll need to know how much your cans weigh (depending on the cans, it may be anywhere between 20-40 cans per pound; newer cans are generally lighter than older cans) or simply regularly weigh your aluminum recycling container, remembering to tare out the weight of the container itself.

While prices at scrap yards vary, a good ballpark to keep in mind is between 40-50 cents per pound for aluminum cans. If you figure 30 cans to a pound and 50 cents per pound, for instance, that works out to 1.6 cents per can. While that isn’t much, it can still add up. So if you’re someone that goes through a lot of aluminum cans—or even better, works somewhere where you have access to a great deal of aluminum can recycling—this can still add up over time.


How Much Is a Pound of Aluminum Cans Worth?

That depends; older cans are heavier than newer cans, which can make a difference in bottle bill states. In 1972, for instance, it took roughly 22 empty aluminum cans to weigh one pound; in 2002, it took 34 empties to add up to a pound. Newer cans may be lighter yet; for argument’s sake, though, let’s assume that even with the lightest aluminum cans, 40 empties will make a pound of cans.

As a result, if you live in a bottle bill state you could make as much as $4.00 per pound (40 aluminum cans at 10 cents per can) and can generally count on at least a dollar or two per pound. If you don’t live in a bottle bill state or near enough to reasonably drive to one, however, you can still sell aluminum cans to scrap yards. Most scrap yards are currently offering between 40 and 50 cents per pound of aluminum, which can still add up over time.

Where Can I Take My Aluminum Cans for Cash?

If you live in a bottle bill state, you should readily be able to find a collection center; taking your aluminum cans to a location where they’ll give you cash deposit back on those cans is definitely the best way to make money on aluminum can recycling.

If you don’t live in a bottle bill state, however, it’s still worth calling your local scrap yards and asking what rates they pay for aluminum cans. If you have recycling aluminum cans for your local scrap yard with enough regularity, even 40 cents per pound can add up over time.

Where Can I Aluminum Can Recycle Near Me?

There are plenty of apps and search functions out there that can help you find the best prices near you for aluminum can recycling. One of our favorites is the iScrap app.