The Life of an Aluminum Can

By Robbie Coens

How is an Aluminum Can Made?

Aluminum is an abundant element found in the Earth's crust in the mineral bauxite. Bauxite is refined to remove impurities which produces a white powder called alumina, or aluminum oxide. A constant electric current is surged through the aluminum oxide, which separates the two elements. The aluminum is heated, melting it into a liquid. Other metals are added to strengthen the substance. This final product is cast into ingots and rolled into coils where it is sent to manufacturing plants to make aluminum cans, as well as other aluminum products.

There are two pieces to making an aluminum can: the lid and the body. The aluminum coils used to make these cans weigh about 25,000 pounds, stretching between 20,000 to 30,000 feet long and five to six feet wide if completely unrolled. Aluminum can producers use mass amounts of these coils every day.

First, the aluminum coil is unrolled by one machine, feeding it to another machine that creates shallow cups. The excess aluminum is recycled. These cups are then made into taller cups with a series of iron rings. The tops of the cups are then trimmed to make them all equal size. Next, the aluminum cups are washed to allow the printing process to commence. A printer places ink on the cans to decorate them, followed by a coating to make the cans shiny. The cans then go into a oven to bake the paint and coating. The inside is then sprayed to prevent a reaction with the substance inside the can. The cans go back into a oven, and afterwards the tops are made narrow to form the area for the lid. The bottoms are then reformed to help the strength of the cans. The finished product is tested for holes by using a special light that can spot holes smaller than a human hair. The cans and tops are shipped to soft drink companies separately. Lastly, the cans are coated with a sealant to ensure the beverage inside does not touch the actual metal. Finally, the cans are ready to be shipped to stores for retail.

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This is a picture of bauxite, the type of rock that aluminum is found in.

Aluminum Can Usage

Aluminum cans are used to hold beverages. They are used to ship beverages to retail stores, but more specifically to be sold to consumers in a container size that is equal to one serving. After consumers buy a product that uses aluminum cans, the can’s use does not last for long. When one can is opened, it is usually disposed of within the same day. Aluminum cans are most often sold in packs of twelve, which, depending on the frequency of a consumer’s use, often times do not last for more than a couple weeks. Americans alone go through billions of cans per year, 41 billion of them finding their way to landfills.

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Post-usage of an Aluminum Can

When this product is no longer needed, there are three possible scenarios about its future. One possible outcome is that it is littered. Another outcome is that it is thrown away, in which a garbage truck collects and places it into a landfill. If one of these outcomes becomes the case for an aluminum can, it will not be for another 80-200 years to completely decompose. The third outcome is that an aluminum can gets recycled. It is possible for one can to be recycled and back on the shelf of a store within 60 days.
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Aluminum Can Reuse

The way that every bit of aluminum in the forms of cans is reused is through recycling. In fact, no aluminum is lost through the recycling process. Therefore, it is imperative that everyone becomes educated on how effective recycling these cans are.

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The Three R's (Reduce, Reuse, & Recycle) of Aluminum Cans

Surprisingly, we do not want to reduce the use of aluminum cans, as long as they are recycled. First off, production through a recycled can requires 92% less energy than producing a new one. Additionally, less space is used in landfills is more cans are recycled. Recycling these, therefore, reduce humans’ carbon footprint. Recovering and recycling 75%, or 600,000 metric tons of aluminum cans, we could reduce the production of 1286 megawatts of generated electricity. Furthermore, this would lessen the released carbon dioxide from energy production by 11.8 million metric tons. With a lesser carbon footprint and more land space, biodiversity is more likely to thrive in the future.