Aluminum is everywhere — our kitchens, our cars, our offices and even our backyards. It can take hundreds of shapes and dozens of appearances. Really, it is hard to imagine modern life without it.
Aluminum, like most metals, can be recycled endless times. The ease with which households can get it to recyclers varies depending on the form it takes. But, since it is so prolific, most communities have multiple solutions for recycling aluminum.
Hundreds of items made with aluminum
Aluminum begins life as bauxite, a substance found in abundance in the earth’s crust. The bauxite is mined and sent to refiners for processing. The first step is removing the aluminum oxide, a white powder with the consistency of sugar. Electricity is applied to separate the aluminum from the oxygen. Small amounts of additional metals, such as copper and magnesium, are mixed in to prevent corrosion and add other beneficial characteristics.
Aluminum is ubiquitous because it is readily available and has many beneficial properties. It is lightweight yet very strong. It does not rust and will not create sparks if something hits it. It conducts heat and electricity well, but it will not burn and will not create toxic fumes even if heated to very high temperatures. It can also be recycled over and over again — infinitely.
For all those reasons and more, hundreds of products are made with aluminum. In the kitchen you will find soda, beer and other beverages in aluminum cans
. Pots, cookie sheets and other cooking equipment are made with aluminum to take advantage of its heat-conducting properties. Peek in the fridge and you will likely find something covered in aluminum foil.
Aluminum shows up in entertainment items as well. You will probably find it in things like lawn chairs and barbecues. Sporting equipment such as baseball bats and lacrosse sticks are frequently made with the metal. Wiring in electronics can be made from aluminum.
In a big shift for the automotive industry, car manufacturers are starting to look into using more aluminum. Ford’s new F-150 pickup truck, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., will be made with aluminum. Electric car manufacturer Arcimoto
in Eugene, OR
, is making its futuristic frame out of aluminum. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal
says the automotive industry represents a huge new opportunity for aluminum smelters, who have seen a decline in business as the microbrewery industry moved to bottling beer in glass rather than cans.
Aluminum is easy to recycle
An old aluminum step ladder gets recycled the same way as a used aluminum can. The American Beverage Association
provides a great description of the process. First, aluminum products are transported to a specialized manufacturer called a smelter. They are shredded and brought to their melting temperature of 1,400º F. The liquid metal is poured into bars called ingots, which can weigh up to 40,000 pounds. The ingots are sold to people looking to create new products.
Manufacturing brand-new aluminum takes a tremendous amount of energy. By contrast, aluminum can producers state that they can reduce their carbon emissions by 95% when they use recycled aluminum instead of virgin aluminum.
How to recycle aluminum
The method for recycling aluminum depends on its form. Cans are perhaps the easiest thing to recycle. In the 11 U.S. states with bottles bills, you can take your cans to the nearest return center for a refund. In states without a bottle bill, your curbside recycler should take aluminum cans (almost all of them do).
Large aluminum items will likely need to be dropped off at a recycling center. Visit our recycling location search engine
to find recycling locations in your area. Pay close attention to exactly what the center can accept. For example, many places will not take old aluminum window frames if the glass is still in them. As well, many air-conditioning units contain ozone-depleting gases and must be handled separately.
Some cities arrange bulky collection days, where they send trucks into neighborhoods to collect large items that cannot go in the trash. This resource is another way to recycle large aluminum items. Bayonne, NJ, has trucks that circulate on certain days of the week, while in Los Angeles
and Howard County, MD (located between Baltimore
and Washington, DC
), homeowners can call and schedule an appointment to have items picked up. Typically, communities sell recycling stickers that must be affixed to each item as a way to pay for the service (a system similar to the way postage stamps work). Inquire at your local public works office to find out if bulky collection services are available and where you can purchase stickers.
A local charity may welcome your reusable aluminum items. Call your favorite thrift store to see if it accepts goods like cooking equipment and bicycles. Habitat for Humanity ReStores
are often interested in construction materials like light fixtures and sinks.