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Recycle! Or why we should all be concerned about aluminum

April 14, 2007 ~ 5:31 p.m.

The aluminum industry keeps growing, so what sense does it make to throw the stuff away?

I rescued 50 soda cans the other day.

Allow me to explain: My workplace has a weekend shift, but there are no cleaners over these two days. Hence, the wastebaskets tend to be pretty full by the time my shift begins on a Sunday night/early Monday morning (yes, I work third shift). And I was not at all happy with what I saw last Sunday night at 11:30 p.m. when I walked in: Aluminum cans in every single wastebasket in the place.

Now, I'm not about to trashpick in front of my co-workers, so the next night, late Monday going on early Tuesday, I made a point of secretly going through the bags of refuse in the dumpsters—where it's pretty dark and no-one can see me—to recover every can that I knew would be in them. Sound crazy? Who would do this sort of thing without even being paid to do so? I guess I'm just an altruist when it comes to the environment.

But there's another point to this, and it's that aluminum is the most easily recycled material. I hate to see it wasted. The aluminum industry keeps growing and as the future rolls on, there's going to be more of this metal around than ever before. I even once mentioned to my wife that we should invest in aluminum stocks, knowing full well what a boon this material is. Even The Financial Times dedicated an entire business section in their paper to aluminum last year.

Yet, so much of this useful and much-in-demand metal goes to landfill. I ask you: Does this make any sense whatsoever? People, being the dimwits they are, just don't think. They sit at their desks, sipping their soda and, as soon as it's finished, drop the can into the wastebasket and don't think twice about what a phenomenal and tragic waste that amounts to.

Aluminum can be recycled 100 times over and it will still be as good and as strong as it was the day it was mined from the bauxite. Would you feel any less safe flying on a plane that you knew was made from recycled aluminum? I wouldn't and I have no reason to. Besides, the aluminum industry, despite its prestige and power, is one of the least environmentally friendly. It uses a lot of energy, emits a lot of carbon dioxide, leaves a lot of waste from the mined bauxite behind, and can scar the landscape. Although the industry is trying to cut down on the environmental impact of processing virgin aluminum, the fact is recycled aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy needed to process "fresh" aluminum and is virtually waste-free. And the aluminum industry, as long as they have enough of the metal to provide, should be none the wiser about whether it's "fresh" or recycled. They are still going to profit either way.

Glass and paper (to an extent) can be recycled over several times too and plastic trash can be used to create more long-lasting plastic (or similarily synthetic) products. And I recycle everything—steel food tins, all paper and cardboard, glass, plastic bottles and, of course, aluminum. But even if you recycle nothing else, at least recycle your aluminum. The aluminum can was a great invention and I'm not saying it's regrettable that it's what we use to keep carbonated drinks cold and fresh once they make it to market. But, once you've enjoyed the drink, don't just toss the container out. Give it a quick rinse and keep it for recycling later. Get a separate trash barrel just for your cans and keep them in there until it's time to take them for recycling.

I drink two or three cans of Diet Coke myself every night and I always put the empty cans into my gym bag and bring them back with me. I'll either drop them in the recycling bucket once I get home or drop them off at the recycling bins near the train station before heading home. And, besides, most U.S. states still have a financial incentive for recyling them. Think about it: If you save up 200 cans, which would probably all fit into one trashbag and wouldn't be at all heavy, you can, at 5 cents per can, make 10 instant bucks! Who wouldn't want at least some of the money back that they spent on their cases of Pepsi or Heineken?

No such incentive exists here in Britain. People are trusted to recycle as long as the powers-that-be make us feel guilty enough about global warming and rapidly shrinking land space. But we should be concerned about that, shouldn't we?

– M.E.M.

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