Aluminium should be recycled again and again…. (Apr10)

I’ve recently started getting my hair highlighted. The first time was in France a couple of years ago. They daubed a strong smelling substance on strands of my hair and left it to do the job. But with follow up appointments closer to home, I’ve discovered that British hairdressers use aluminium foil – loads of it.

Every strand of highlighted hair is wrapped with foil, after the colouring has been applied. I’m pretty sure that the hairdressers I’ve used to date have then just chucked the foil away. But when I discussed the issue at a hairdresser I went to a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover that they recycled it. Not so good though was that what they were doing was illegal! They had to put the foil in domestic recycling facilities because commercial ones weren’t available – and they would have had to pay for disposal.

Aluminium is actually one of the most important materials to recycle. That’s because it takes a huge amount of energy to produce and a lot of that can be saved by recycling. So, for example, it takes about 20 times more energy to make a new aluminium can than a recycled one. Another concern is that the raw materials used to make aluminium are often sited in forested areas – rainforests too – so it can contribute to deforestation.

One really good thing is that you can recycle aluminium indefinitely. In 2009 in the UK about 55% of aluminium cans were recycled and 41% of aluminium overall. I don’t think that’s good enough. As I was asked to give the key note speech at the Alupro 2010 conference – Alupro promote aluminium packaging recycling – so I decided to investigate what’s stopping more recycling. Here are four reasons I came up with:

1. Weight based targets: Recycling targets for local authorities are currently measured by the weight of the material they collect – and aluminium is very light.

2. Local authority incentives: Although aluminium is one of the highest value materials collected, local authorities are not directly benefiting from increased collection.

3. Commercial recycling madness: Whilst there is household collection of aluminium cans throughout the country, facilities have not been set up for pubs, clubs and other catering establishments. These premises have to pay for waste disposal, which means they can’t use domestic recycling facilities, and often there aren’t any commercial ones available.

4. On the go recycling – early days: Apparently most drinks cans are used when we’re out and about but it’s hard to find recycling facilities on the streets or at events.

I went to the Nottinghill Carnival this year – see pictures below. There were piles of waste, with lots of cans. I haven’t checked to see if they were recycled but I suspect not.

Alupro have been promoting recycling for many years. And recently they’ve set up a new initiative called Every Can Counts, which is specifically directed at ‘on the go’ recycling – one of the first events where they were spreading their message was the Isle of Wight Festival this summer.

But in my view we need much much more. With a carrot and stick aproach, the government should be letting local authorities reap the rewards from collecting high value materials, whilst fining them for any aluminium that ends up in landfill.

Whether aluminium is used for hairdressing, ready meal containers, chocolate wrappers or soft drinks it should be valued – and used again and again and again….


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