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Alcoa Targets Wealthier Consumers For Recycling

April 21, 1990

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A top aluminum manufacturer is tugging at heartstrings, not just pocketbooks, to stimulate recycling among white-collar beer and soda drinkers by promising to donate profits from returned cans to charity.

The Aluminum Company of America is financing the projects to lure upscale beverage consumers who are unmoved by what amounts to an 11-cent bounty on a six-pack in states that don’t have deposit laws.

″If we can find a cause, we’ll motivate them,″ Alcoa spokesman John Van Devender said.

Alcoa said most of 1,400 can collectors it recently surveyed coming into Alcoa redemption centers earn less than $35,000 annually. That means there’s a wealthier pool of potential recyclers for the beverage industry to tap.

U.S. aluminum makers have said they want to recycle more cans rather than make new aluminum with their power-thirsty smelters. The industry hopes to recycle three out of four cans by 1995. The current rate is three out of five.

″There’s a large element out there, the upper and middle classes, that’s still not recycling,″ said George Cobb, president of Alcoa’s recycling division. ″There are a lot of costs involved in collecting cans, in terms of gas mileage and time ... It’s hard to move people.″

Recycling revenue already has helped pay for restoration of a battleship near Houston, while a nationwide network of municipal and volunteer fire companies collects cans and donates the proceeds to young burn victims.

Volunteer firefighter Henry Urban of Cherry City, Pa., drove to an Alcoa recycling center in Pittsburgh on Thursday to drop off two bags of cans collected by his grandson, Mark.

Alcoa donates the money to a hospital ″and Mark gets to know that he’s doing some good,″ Urban said.

The Urbans are not Alcoa’s typical customers. The company’s survey said 60 percent of recyclers are motivated by cash alone. Only 25 percent said they want to reduce waste in the environment.

″I do it for the money,″ said John Lucci, after hauling in 36 pounds of cans, some of which overflowed from the covered bed of his pickup truck. The aluminum booty brought him $13.

Pennsylvania is one of 41 states without a statewide law mandating deposits on aluminum cans to encourage recycling. Alcoa says the states with such laws are California, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.

Trade figures show beverage makers used 6.5 percent more aluminum cans in 1989. The recycling rate also grew - from 54.6 percent of cans reused in 1988 to a record 60.8 percent last year, according to the Aluminum Association, a trade group.

The increase marks a recovery from the leaner days of the mid-1980s aluminum recession. Like other major producers committed to buy every can collected by scrap aluminum dealers, Alcoa piled mountains of surplus cans outside recycling centers during the slowdown.

″We knew we’d eventually work (the surplus) off,″ Van Devender said. ″If we were going to build this giant recycling system, we knew we’d have to get through the good years and the bad years.″

The recycling boom last year spawned new can-melting plants in Sheffield, Ala.; Houser, Idaho; and Berea and Morgantown, Ky. In contrast, the last new aluminum smelter started production in 1980.

Producing aluminum through recycling is far less expensive than smelting new aluminum. The current cost of a smelter similar in size to the recently opened recycling plant in Berea would cost $600 million, industry observers say.

The Berea plant, the largest of its kind with the capabilty of recycling 120 million tons of cans a year, cost $50 million, said Stan Lampe, a spokesman for Alcan, the company that owns the plant.

The aluminum industry uses 1 percent of the electricity generated in the country, and most of that is consumed by smelters, according to an Alcoa annual report.

″The aluminum industry is, by nature, capital intensive. Recycling is not,″ Lampe said. ″We see it as one of our major growth areas.″

So do Pennsylvania and the dozen other states that have passed so-called ″curbside collection″ laws. Effective in September, Pennsylvania’s law forces 408 larger communities and townships to separate and recycle aluminum, as well as glass, steel, paper and plastics.

Alcoa’s Cobb said the laws could pose a problem for the company because it must train thousands of municipal garbage workers to prepare aluminum for shipment. Foreign material in a batch of scrap aluminum can cause explosions during melting or health problems for consumers, he said.

Mildred Wood of Ross Township said efforts like mandatory recycling and charitable causes are needed. Ms. Wood, who collects cans from the 18 residents of her apartment building, said the tenants use recycling checks to buy garden hoses and hardware for their building.

″The time’s coming,″ she said, ″when we all should be recycling.″

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