Hey! Friday night! Time to celebrate. With beer. Since we already know what happens to us once we've popped the top on a few too many cold ones—hello, hangover—let's take a look at what happens to that can after you've pounded it; chances are, it will be less than a few months until it's already back chilling out in a fridge somewhere.
Image via Recology SF
Duh for many reasons, not least of which is the material is practically begging to be reused; it is incredibly, almost mind-bogglingly resilient. Though it takes quite a bit of energy to produce aluminum in the first place, once that mined bauxite ore is cleaned, crushed, refined, and processed, it can just keep on keeping on getting melted down and reformed, without forgoing any of its strength or natural properties in the process. Aluminum can pretty much live for-ev-er, if we let it. Whoa. Considering that just two years ago, Americans were tossing out 2.9 million tons of aluminum per year—most of it our beloved beverage cans—and we recycled a little over half of that, we've got a ways to go.
Photograph of Sunset Park by Nick Stango
Once your blue bins have been emptied curbside, they're taken to a sorting and recycling facility—even when privately owned and for profit, they're definitely in the business of making the world a less trashy place by intercepting landfill-bound garbage and giving it a chance for new forms and new functions.
It all starts with a massive dump from a big ol' truck, into huge piles like the one above at Sunset Park in Brooklyn, our nation's impressively efficient, largest commingled—meaning paper, plastics, and metals—recycling plant (which Giz had a chance to visit earlier this year).
Depending on the type and size of the facilities, sorting between the different kinds of discards is done with a combo of conveyor belts, shredders, screens, magnets, and yes, actual human contact. Each of the materials will ultimately be recycled in entirely different ways, so the better the separation at the start, the more effective the end-game.
Once everything's been sorted and there's a bunch of loose aluminum all together, all that smashed stuff is dropped into a crusher. You do not want to fall into a crusher. The crusher is very, very powerful. Everything in the crusher is pressed into a perfect cube by a gigantic hydraulic panel that would flatten you in a second.
Those boxes look like this.
Image via Wikipedia
Can sheet manufacturers like Logan Aluminum take those chunks, slice them up into teensy pieces, then heat them into a liquid...
That is then poured into casting molds to become ingots.
These ingots are not just bitty bullion.
But after the top and bottom are scraped down and smoothed out, these chunks are heated up and make upwards of 30 passes over a rolling conveyor belt, which smooshes them down but keeps their width the same.
A finishing mill flattens them into sheets that are a super slim one-tenth of an inch thick, which are then rolled up and ready for inspection.
Eventually, these babies are shipped to manufacturers and ready to be made into your next Bud. The whole closed-loop process can be completed in three months or less, which gives a whole new perspective on your brewski (or soda pop, for the teetotalers). Imagine the places it's been, and oh the places it will go. Cheers! [Logan Aluminum; Cool Hunting; EPA; How Stuff Works; Reading Rainbow]
Lead image via Flickr