Even the simplest actions can make a difference in the health of the environment. Nothing may be more important than recycling aluminum instead of sending it to the landfill. As a natural resource, aluminum is difficult to extract and refine. Mining it uses tremendous electrical resources and the process from start to finish pollutes the air, land and water.
By reusing it, the entire planet sees the benefits of recycling aluminum. It comes from the earth, primarily in Guinea and Australia. It’s shipped around the world to processing plants. While aluminum is an extensive drain on the environment and so easily recycled, Americans send one billion tons of recyclable aluminum to landfills each year.
The benefits of recycling it are many, including:
1. Slowing Resource Depletion
Aluminum comprises about eight percent of the earth’s resources, and while it’s an abundant element, its supply is still limited. Like gold, it can’t be created synthetically. Once the natural sources have been depleted, the supply will be limited to the materials available through recycling.
It’s far easier to reuse it than mine it, which is one of the biggest benefits of recycling aluminum. This metal can be used over and over again without any degradation in its quality or usefulness. In fact, 75 percent of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today. The Aluminum Association reports that 67 percent of cans in 2012 were recycled and that 90 percent of the aluminum used in car parts and buildings is recycled.
2. Reducing Mining Scars and Pollution
Minimizing the number of active mines and preventing air and water pollution are two of the most important benefits of recycling aluminum. Raw aluminum, called bauxite, is found in the top layer of the earth. Mining companies clear the land above the deposits by using bulldozers and dynamite.
The strip mines are open pits that expose the earth’s layers, and once the miners have depleted the bauxite, they leave piles of mine tailings that might be used to refill the pit, or simply left behind. The tailings are laden with hazardous wastes and particulates that winds blow into the atmosphere. Growing vegetation on the piles minimizes their erosion and keeps the particulates out of the air. Botanists have searched for decades for plant material that grows on tailing piles with limited success.
Polluted water from the tailing piles enter the rivers and streams, and leach into the groundwater supply. Once the toxic compounds enter the groundwater, purifying the water is expensive and limits its use for irrigation and drinking.
3. Saving Electricity
Once mined, the bauxite heads to the smelting plant where it takes enormous amounts of electricity to separate the aluminum because aluminum is so stable. It takes more energy to break the bonds of stable compounds than those that are unstable because it takes extreme heat to force the bonds apart. In fact, some smelters have their own power plants because their electrical demand outstrips the ability of the local electric provider to supply them. Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, owns 11 power plants to meet the needs for their operations.
4. Reducing the Heat-loving Gases in the Atmosphere
Lowering greenhouse gases is one of the top long-term benefits of recycling aluminum. Power plants for aluminum smelting use either natural gas or coal to generate electricity. Both coal and gas produce carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming.
The smelting process also produces perfluorocarbon, which, according to Western Washington University, is 9,200 times more harmful than carbon dioxide for the atmosphere. Not only do the power plants emit harmful gases, their fuel economy is poor.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas power plants wasted 57 percent of the gas they used to produce electricity, while coal-fired electric plants wasted 67 percent in 2014. The waste for natural gas power generation goes up the smokestacks as gases, and coal-fired power generation produces both solid waste and atmospheric gases.
5. Keeping Landfill Waste Down
It takes about 500 years for an aluminum can to break down in a landfill. Unlike food and other kinds of organic waste, cans don’t decompose quickly, and the space they require adds up.
Developing, managing and maintaining landfills isn’t cheap. Trash disposal is one of the biggest challenges municipalities face for environmental and economic reasons, and keeping the cans out of the landfill is another of the benefits of recycling aluminum. Most neighborhoods in the U.S. have separate curbside pickup programs for recyclable materials that encourage aluminum recycling. Some of the solid coal waste can be reused, but the larger share ends up in waste dumps.
6. Lowering the Cost of Aluminum Products
Aluminum is used not only for containers, it’s also an important component of cleaning products, construction materials, appliances, light bulbs, chemicals, antacids and toothpaste, and vehicles, including planes, trains and ships. Producing more aluminum from recycled sources costs 95 percent less of what it costs to mine bauxite and smelt it.
As the world’s population grows and demand for natural materials, including aluminum, the supply of this metal will fall as demand increases. Given its high cost to extract and refine and the increasing demand, one of the biggest benefits of recycling aluminum is to keep the cost of this material low.
7. Putting more Money in Your Pocket
Collecting aluminum to trade for cash can be lucrative. While prices fluctuate and by location, the national average stands at $0.60 per pound. Whether you’re collecting it for yourself or as part of fundraising activities for an organization, it’s an easy way to make extra money.
It’s not heavy, it’s an abundant material among households, and, for the most part, it’s clean. Armed with a can crusher and plenty of covered plastic containers or bags, it’s easy to store enough aluminum to make cashing it in profitable.
The benefits of recycling aluminum can’t be overestimated. The mining and manufacturing process have an enormous impact, none of which are easy to reverse. Reusing it is easy and something everyone can do to make the world a better place one can at a time. And the same goes for recycling water bottles!
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