Ask basically anyone what materials are recyclable, you'll probably get a very similar list: plastic, paper, aluminum, and glass. While severely a comprehensive list, many groups have worked exhaustively to teach the general public about the recycling triangle, and where to look for it on various items. Unfortunately, this seems to be where the public service announcement stops; apparently there are plenty of groups who want us to know what we can recycle, but surprisingly few trying to tell us what we really should recycle. What I mean is that there is a vast spectrum of how economically and environmentally viable the recycling of various materials is. While we make judgment calls all day while walking around about what's worth hunting down a recycling bin for, many people do not have the appropriate knowledge to make such a call.
Metal recycling in general and aluminum recycling in particular are extremely viable, efficient forms of recycling. Aluminum recycling is what's referred to as a “closed-loop” process, in which no fillers or adulterants are added during the recycling process. What goes in is exactly what comes out. This means that aluminum recycling is extremely effective in one of recycling's major goals, making it so less less raw, new material is needed. Sadly, our tendency to actually pitch our soda cans in the recycling bin when we're done clocks in at just 50%. We're more likely to recycle office paper, sending it into a process that is relatively inefficient.
This is not to say that metal recycling should collapse office paper, and you should obsess over one or the other. This is purely to say that our economy of convenience could be hurting the recycling industry, and therefore our planet. The discrepancy (about 20%) between our office paper recycling and our aluminum can recycling, can be explained by the fact that many people simply buy a small recycling bin for their office; the solution is right next to the problem. This is rarely the case when we are out and about and finish off a can of soda. While this does mean that owner's of strip -alls and the like could certainly do their part by accompanying trash cans on their property with a recycling bin, we can also do our part by not giving in to sloth. Carry the can a ways; are you going to the grocery store later? If so, hold onto it, lots of grocers have recycling in-house.
Metal recycling does not just stop at aluminum cans either; steel recycling is another form of recycling that is extremely efficient. There is very little loss of quality when steel undergoes the recycling process, and the mining and production costs, both economically and environmentally, of creating new steel is exorbitantly higher than the cost of recycling it. Unlike aluminum, this form of recycling is more a matter of common sense than convenience. When we retire an appliance or other household item that contains steel (the source of most residential steel waste), we usually just have it sent to the dump. Next time, have it sent to the recycling plant; it's just a matter of thinking about everything in terms of whether or not it can be recycled, rather than immediately lumping something into “garbage.”
By increasing our metal recycling, we can save our country millions in fuel costs that would normally go towards producing new material. While it's easy to fall into the mindset that there's always more raw material (untrue in and of itself) people often forget about the other practical benefits of recycling. Next time you're about to toss an aluminum can in the trash, or leave your stainless steel fridge on the curve for the garbage man, try to envision a mining operation, and all the fuel being spent to get new material, when usable material sits at the bottom of a ten-thousand ton mountain of trash. Do not like the cost of gas? This is one way to do something about it.