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.
First off: Recycle that thing
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 aluminium 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. Aluminium can pretty much live for-ev-er, if we let it. Whoa.
Off to the plant
Photograph 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 US had a chance to visit earlier this year).
Sort it out
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 aluminium all together, all that smashed stuff is dropped into 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.
Whoever smelt it...
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.
From 3D to 2D
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.
Lead image via Flickr