Metals

How is aluminum recycled?
Answered by Elizabeth Blackwell and Science Channel
  • Elizabeth Blackwell

    Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Consumer products made from aluminum, such as drink cans and foil, are collected through residential pick-up programs and public recycling bins and taken to a dedicated recycling facility. The aluminum is shredded and heated in an enormous furnace.

    The molten, liquid metal is then poured into casts to set. Aluminum that will be used for cans is poured into large, flat molds to form sheet ingot. Although sheet ingot is only a few inches deep, each piece weighs several thousand pounds. The sheet ingot is later rolled out by machine to the desired thinness, with each ingot able to make about 1.5 million cans [source: Recycle Now].

    Aluminum destined for other commercial uses is poured into molds called billets, which can be either cylindrical or square. Cold water is sprayed on the metal to cool it rapidly, and the billets are then shipped to manufacturing facilities. Besides soft-drink cans, recycled aluminum can be used for a number of other commercial products, including road signs, cookware, window screens and electrical wire.

    During the recycling process, aluminum sometimes is combined with one or more other metals to form an alloy, which has specific properties and is created for a specific industrial or commercial use. Aluminum alloys can be used to make parts for trains, cars, airplanes and buildings, for example. There is growing interest in using aluminum for transportation: Because it weighs less than other metals, it can increase a vehicle's fuel efficiency [source: The Aluminum Association].

    The recycling process for cans is so efficient that a new can may show up on stores shelves only 60 days after its predecessor was tossed in a recycling bin [source: Recycle Now].

    Smashed recyclable soda cans.
    Smashed recyclable soda cans. (iStockphoto.com/Marcelo Wain)

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  2. Most of the aluminum that was ever made is being used today because it can be recycled again and again without losing its quality. Most recycled aluminum comes from used beverage cans, old car parts or scrap collected during the manufacture of aluminum products. About 100 billion cans are produced in the U.S. every year, and about two-thirds of these are recycled, saving 95 percent of the energy that making new metal would require. The recycling of aluminum cans is a closed-loop process. This means the new product is the same as the one that was recycled. Cans are shredded, melted, cooled into hardened ingots, and then the ingots are rolled out into thin sheets. The sheets of recycled aluminum are used to make new cans.

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