About once a week, sometimes more, I pick up a discarded aluminum can on the side of the road in the last few miles of my usual thirty mile out and back. Cyclists are not the source of these cans, I believe, since most of them are on a stretch of road well-travelled by garbage trucks, work vehicles, and jackasses who litter.
Aluminum, as we all learned in elementary school when Earth Day was new and shiny, is easily recyclable. The problem is that less than half of the estimated 100 billion aluminum cans per year are recycled. Now, a 50% recovery rate is pretty good compared to plastic or paper but considering the ecological impact of turning bauxite into aluminum it is unacceptable.
It takes a lot of raw bauxite ore and energy to make aluminum. Recycling the aluminum flips that equation on its head. The old saw that we learned as kids was that the energy saved from recycling one can could save enough energy to run your television for three hours. When you are concerned about the environment and love watching Thundercats on Saturday morning this is a big deal. Now? Not so much. Here’s the deal. It takes twenty times the energy to produce an aluminum can from raw ore versus recycling said can. Put in kilowatt hour terms it takes ~4.2 kWh to make an aluminum can from scratch. So, every can you pull from the waste stream and put into the recycling stream saves about 4 kWh of electricity and, by extension, about 4 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
That is for a single can. If I pick up a single can across the 25 or so weeks of “prime” riding season here in eastern Iowa the end result is a savings of about 100 kWh of electricity or 4 to 5 days of solar photovoltaic production from my rooftop array. Start multiplying that over all of the people taking a ride and it adds up to some real electricity savings. Think about getting closer to 100% recovery of the 100 billion aluminum cans manufactured in the U.S. every year. Those are big numbers.
- Over 388,000 of the average car driven for a year or
- Almost 196,000 homes energy use for one year or
- About 460 wind turbines production for a year
- And a whole lot more…play with the numbers, it’s fun.
This is why it is important, in my mind, to pick up the cans I see littering the road and trail when I am on my bike. A few seconds every ride is all it takes. Heck, in Iowa we have a freaking deposit law so every can also nets you a nickel. Do it for the nickels!