Wall Street Journal Gets Aluminium Can Recycling Entirely Wrong

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Make sure to read the comments to check corrections to this correction.

You know we’re all supposed to be on the look out for fake news these days? It’s not just a Facebook thing you know. Take this from the Wall Street Journal:

Aluminum Makers Ditch Can Business
Used beer and soda cans pile up as mills turn to producing more profitable auto parts
By Bob Tita
March 17, 2019 11:00 a.m. ET
Used cans are piling up at scrapyards because U.S. aluminum companies are turning fewer of them into new metal, another indication of the economic challenges facing recycling. Arconic Inc. and other aluminum rollers are producing less sheet for beverage cans and more higher-margin flat-rolled aluminum for automotive and industrial components. That means more cans in the U.S. are made from imported aluminum.

It might well be that the aluminium rollers are changing their product mix in the pursuit of higher margins. That could well mean that imported rolled aluminium is being used to make the cans – you’d not import made cans because that is moving air around the world. It’s also entirely possible that those used cans aren’t being melted down at the old rate.

All of these things could and possibly even are true. The only thing that isn’t is the because.

Because you don’t make new beverage cans out of old beverage cans.

It’s entirely possible to make new beverage cans out of old airplanes or cars. And no doubt people do make new airplanes and cars out of old cans. But you don’t make old cans into new cans.

The reason being that the alloy used to make the top of the can is different from that used to make the sides and bottom of it. And when you recycle you don’t – it’s not worth it, not in the slightest – separate that top from the sides and bottom of the beverage can. Thus melted down cans are the wrong alloy to be making new cans out of.

Sure, recycling aluminium is a great idea for it’s not really the aluminium that’s being recycled. The bauxite then alumina we make them out of are cheap enough – $50 a tonne and $250 a tonne maybe, just as indications. The aluminium metal though, we’ve got to stick maybe $900 worth of electricity into each tonne to change the alumina into aluminium. Melting it then recasting it is very much cheaper than making new aluminium metal. It’s the electricity we’re recycling much more than anything else.

However, recycling does not mean returning the metal to exactly the same use it came from. And we just don’t do that with beverage cans. We don’t make new ones out of old ones.

Beware of fake news, eh? It’s not just for Facebook.

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DBF

There were plenty of flaws in the WSJ article, but your main point was not one of them. You are correct that aluminum beverage cans are made of 3xxx and 5xxx aluminum, and one cannot simply turn an old can into a new can. But every month companies like Novelis, Constellium, Arconic, and Tri-Arrows aluminum ABSOLUTELY turn tens of millions of pounds of used beverage cans into can sheet ( or can stock). They then sell that can sheet to can manufacturers who turn the sheet into new beverage cans. The process of turning used beverage cans into can sheet… Read more »

Jack Betz
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Jack Betz

Hi, Tim. I noticed a few inaccuracies in your article. I’ll just address two. 1) Rolling mills in the US DO melt used beverage cans (UBCs) to make can sheet, tab stock and ends. It’s very common. One pound of UBCs costs approximately 60ยข/lb in today’s market, delivered mill. A pound of primary aluminum costs about $1.04/lb in today’s market. While melted UBCs have to be alloyed with some primary aluminum and minor metals, it’s still going to be cheaper to use large amounts of scrap in the raw material mix than using pure prime. By alloying the melted UBCs,… Read more »