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August 2005

Ambiguous numbers shroud the aluminum can recycling rate

An environmental group that supports bottle bill legislation is claiming that the Aluminum Association has overstated a recent increase in the national aluminum can recycling rate.

While the Aluminum Association reported a recycling rate of 51.2 percent in 2004, up from 50 percent in 2003, the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a non-profit based in Arlington, Virginia calculated that the recycling rate was 45.1 percent in 2004, up from 44.3 percent in 2003.

Why the difference? Jenny Gitlitz, research director at CRI, said the Aluminum Association included imported scrap cans in its recycling rate calculation. She said the cans are first counted in the recycling rate of the exporting country and are counted again as recycled cans in the U.S. “You have the same can being counted twice and that’s just not right,” Gitlitz said.

Gitlitz said that the numbers by the Aluminum Association conflict with the methodology established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for calculating recycling rates of all materials in the waste stream. Using the EPA guidelines and data provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce, CRI deducts the number of scrap cans imported to the U.S. They reported that 55 billion aluminum cans were wasted and not recycled in 2004, 9 billion more than were wasted in 2000. “So, this isn’t just something that CRI has come up with on its own. It’s really us following the methodology that the U.S. EPA has established,” she said.

According to CRI, 30 percent of the increase reported by the Aluminum Association was from 490 million more scrap cans imported into the U.S. in 2004 than in 2003. The CRI also reported that the increase in aluminum cans recycled was thanks to an increase in the redemption value or deposit rate of beverage cans in California. CRI said the higher value from California’s bottle bill resulted in 680 million more cans being recycled in California last year than in 2003.

Gitlitz said that the higher redemption rate in California, which went from 2 to 4 cents in January 2004, was a big factor in raising the recycling rate across the state from 70 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in 2004. “We’ve always known that deposit states have higher recycling rates than non-deposit states, several times higher,” she said. “So, it was no surprise that increasing the deposit value created an incentive for consumers to bring more cans back in California.”

Gitlitz said that when the recycling increase in California is added to the increase of imported scrap, the total accounts for over 72 percent of the rate increase reported by the Aluminum Association. “The increase they reported is extremely small. It is not an indicator that a trend is changing,” she said. “More importantly, much of the actual increase is attributable to the California deposit value rising, not to the limited public education and collection programs that the Aluminum Association is undertaking.

The Aluminum Association is not convinced. Patrick Kelly, director of public relations for the trade group, based in Rosslyn, Virginia, said he would look into CRI’s numbers. But he said that the numbers put out by Aluminum Association, which represents producers of aluminum and aluminum recyclers, is an industry figure that is also endorsed by the Can Manufacturers Institute and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, both based in Washington, D.C.

The Aluminum Association said that it strongly supports recycling, noting that it formed a joint committee with CMI, called the Aluminum Can Council, to explore and implement new programs to increase consumer interest in aluminum cans and recycling. Current initiatives by the group include promoting both educational programs and curbside collection programs.

The association is sticking with its reported numbers of 51.5 billion aluminum cans recycled in 2004, a 1.2 percent increase over 2003, and the first increase since 1997. It said that its recycling initiatives are having an impact on the environment, noting that recycling 40 cans has the energy-saving equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. Therefore, during 2004, it said Americans recycled enough cans to conserve the equivalent of over 15 million barrels of oil.

CRI noted that each can that is landfilled must be replaced with an equivalent can made from virgin materials. Gitlitz indicated that in 2003 820,000 tons of cans were wasted in the U.S. In 2004, 810,000 tons were wasted. “Ten thousand tons of additional recycling is a drop in the bucket,” Gitlitz said. A modern bauxite mine and smelter can produce 200,000 to 300,000 tons of aluminum ingots a year. If you want to prevent unnecessary environmental damage at a regional and global scale, you have to recycle hundreds of thousands of additional tons, not tens of thousands.” She estimated that an impact of replacing 810,000 tons of wasted aluminum cans includes about 3.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

CRI said that the efforts by the aluminum and beverage industry to promote recycling have failed to achieve significant results and it is calling for the aluminum and beverage industries to implement dramatic efforts to increase recycling to 75 percent or above. Gitlitz said that this could be accomplished with a federal deposit system. “With a dime deposit across the country,” she said, “we wouldn’t have a recycling rate for cans of either 45 percent, as CRI says, or 51.5 percent that the Aluminum Association says.” she said. “We’d have a recycling rate of 80 percent or more and that’s where we need to get to.”

Most in the aluminum industry, however, are opposed to bottle bills. “A deposit system may be the most economically unsound method of solving a recycling problem,” said Tom Mele, president of Connecticut Metal Industries Inc., based in Connecticut. Connecticut Metal buys and sells aluminum foils, cans, bottle caps and other scrap items in over 45 countries.

Mele said there are a number of reasons to oppose deposit system. “One, it guts current curbside efforts by removing the most valuable commodities from the blue boxes,” he said. “Second, why do we want the whole suburban population wandering around with two dozen cans in the back of their cars so they can wait in line to stuff them in a reverse vending machine to recover their own capital? This system removes millions of dollars in deposits from consumers’ pockets and ties it up in escrow accounts. That can’t be economically beneficial.”

Mele said that beer and soda distributors also have an economic incentive to keep the figures high in deposit states to avoid the state stepping in and asking for unredeemed deposits. “In an affluent state like Connecticut, the insiders report a recovery rate just as pathetic as the current recycling rate,” he said. “Recycling works when it is convenient and has a perceived social benefit. Step up blue box coverage and education and things might improve.”




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