Lost beverage cans in US are hitting recycling rates

Recycling In Atlanta

Up to a quarter of used aluminium beverage cans are being missed by US material recovery facilities, and that is hitting recycling rates.

A study commissioned by the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) has found that the relatively high value of used beverage cans (UBCs) make them essential to the country’s network of material recovery facilities (MRFs), but systemic losses are being made.

Conducted by Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, the report*, Aluminum Beverage Can: Driver of the US Recycling System, found that without the revenue from UBCs, most MRFs in the US would not be able to operate without making significant changes that would ultimately affect the cost of recycling to consumers.

The report concluded that properly sorting UBCs at MRFs can build upon the 45 billion aluminium beverage cans that annually flow through the existing circular system for them. However, it estimated that up to 25 per cent of UBCs entering MRFs are missorted and do not end up in UBC bales. These missorted cans represent the potential loss of aluminium that could have been recycled as well as the loss of significant revenue.

“Many MRF operators are likely unaware of the true amount of losses they are incurring from improperly sorted UBCs,” said the CMI’s vice president of sustainability Scott Breen.

“This report provides a compelling case for MRF operators and investors to put capital toward additional aluminium can capture equipment that will pay for itself in a short period of time. Installing more of this equipment means more revenue for the MRF, more cans captured to be recycled into new cans and a healthier overall recycling system.”

It is estimated that the average medium-to-large MRF processing 45,360 tonnes of recyclables per year in US states that don’t operate a deposit return scheme (DRS) may be losing up to 250 tonnes of UBCs per year – around 18.5 million cans – due to improper sorting. If these cans were captured, the MRF would see an increase in gross annual revenues of US$297,500 (approximately 8.3 per cent) in a calendar year.

The study further showed that MRFs could generate additional revenue from UBCs with investments in aluminium can recycling equipment. This equipment effectively captures missorted cans and pays for itself in as little as one year.

Another key finding is that in states without a DRS, UBCs represent a larger portion of MRF revenues than any other single material commodity. In 2019, UBCs represented 33 per cent of a typical MRF’s revenue in states without a DRS, while just 12.5 per cent in states with a DRS.

In 2019, the US made and filled about 95 billion aluminium beverage cans. However, the overall recovery and recycling rate of UBCs in the US at 50 per cent is much lower than in other parts of the world, such as in Europe where it is around 75 per cent on average, and certain countries such as Germany and Brazil, where it is much higher still.

Earlier this month, The Canmaker reported that collection rates for aluminium UBCs had fallen in the US because of coronavirus lockdowns that had slowed the flow of recovered cans into their supply chain.

* For more information about the CMI study visit: Aluminum Beverage Can: Driver of the U.S. Recycling System