Steel vs. aluminum cans Recycling campaign aimed at Baltimore


Hoping to pressure Maryland Pepsi bottlers to switch from steel to aluminum cans, Alcoa, the world's largest aluminum company, has targeted Baltimore consumers with an aggressive "green marketing" campaign.

But Pepsi and steel recyclers suggest that the Alcoa campaign, which presents aluminum as the environmentally sound alternative to steel, is a case of green marketing in a gray area -- like the muddled debate on cloth vs. disposable diapers.

Alcoa has kicked off a joint aluminum-recycling venture with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in which the foundation receives the total resale value of aluminum cans turned in at special receptacles at Anne Arundel County's 121 public schools and at Valu Food's 12 Maryland supermarkets.

Alcoa plans to expand the project to other school systems and stores in the Baltimore area and already has received several inquiries, said Kelly Keh, the company's regional marketing director.

But the program won't accept the Pepsi steel cans, which, though 100 percent recyclable, are worth less than a quarter of a cent per can on the resale market. Aluminum cans are worth a penny to a penny and a half apiece.

"The message we're trying to get out is that if you are buying a six-pack, you are going to pay the same for it whether it's aluminum or steel. So make sure you buy aluminum to save the bay," said David Hyland, mid-Atlantic district manager for Alcoa Recycling, a unit of Alcoa.

The recycling unit is complementing its aluminum packaging campaign on national television with a local push to get school systems, grocery chains and corporate offices to set up the "Save Aluminum Cans -- Save the Bay" receptacles.

Ms. Keh said she has talked to the superintendents of every Maryland school system and virtually all grocery chains in the state. And the bay foundation is canvassing its contacts in the business community, she said.

Pepsi-Cola East, a division of Pepsi, switched most of its Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew production from aluminum to "bimetal" cans -- with steel sides and aluminum tops and bottoms -- at its Baltimore and Cheverly bottling plants in May.

"And as far as environmental issues go, we've been on this issue long before so-called 'green marketing' was developed," Pepsi-Cola East spokeswoman Leigh Curtin said. "We researched the environmental impact of steel thoroughly and found it's 100 percent recyclable, and though it doesn't have the resale value of aluminum, there are some 15 to 20 recyclers that do handle steel in the Baltimore market. It's just a matter of educating the public."

Ms. Curtin said Pepsi also is trying to avoid becoming subservient to a can market that is already 95 percent controlled by the aluminum industry.

"We have included bimetal in the packaging mix because it enables us to keep costs down and so consumers don't always have to pay for the rising cost of aluminum," Ms. Curtin said.

Ms. Curtin said Pepsi would like to stay flexible on the aluminum vs. steel issue, however. "Sure, we'll listen to the consumers," she said.

George L. Cobb, president of Alcoa Recycling, said the "Save aluminum cans -- Save the Bay" program may be the key to swaying consumer preference.

"This program demonstrates how everybody can win by recycling with aluminum -- the recycler, the environment, the beverage manufacture, the bay foundation and us," he said. "Aluminum is the only packaging material that pays its entire way through the recycling loop."

Mr. Cobb said the program will attract consumers who don't need to recycle to supplement their income but may do it if the money goes to a popular cause. The program also immediately provides a stable market for Alcoa's Columbia office and aluminum baling plant that opened Sept. 10 and will be in full operation by the new year.

The Tennessee-based aluminum company also stands to profit with the program. Alcoa will pay the Chesapeake Bay Foundation the going resale rate for aluminum (about 35 cents a pound) for the cans donated through the program and will assume all administrative costs, but after the metal is baled and sent to the parent company in Tennessee, it can still fetch a healthy profit (baled aluminum now sells for 57 cents a pound, local recyclers said.)

Furthermore, the program, if it catches on, could put pressure on the bottlers to sell more soft drinks in aluminum cans.

"What happens is a student in the school system will bring in a large amount of steel cans and we won't be able to accept them, so they'll go back home and make sure their family buys aluminum next time to save the bay," Mr. Cobb, who has aluminum business cards. He said, "Recycling steel just doesn't pay the recycler. It would be interesting to find out from how many recyclers in Baltimore will accept bimetal cans and what they pay for it."

Though the going retail rate for steel cans is minimal -- between nothing and 2 1/2 cents a pound -- the Steel Can Recycling Institute, a Pittsburgh-based lobby founded two years ago by six steel mills, reports that four companies serving about 20 recycling centers currently accept steel cans in the Baltimore area.

Anne Arundel County's curbside recycling program began accepting steel cans on Oct. 1, spokeswoman Mary Norton said.

Steel's biggest advantage over aluminum for recyclers is its magnetic attraction. Using giant electromagnets, companies such as National Ecology of Timonium mechanically remove steel cans along with other cans from garbage. So even if the consumer can't be bothered, his cans might be recycled.

An aluminum can, however, must be separated by hand if discarded with the rest of a household's garbage.

There are two material recovery facilities serving Baltimore and Baltimore County that have magnetic separators like National Ecology's. Two others are planned in Prince George's County and Washington, Ms. Norton said.

She said that production of a steel can requires only 54 percent of the energy used to manufacture an aluminum can -- a figure that diminishes somewhat as more and more aluminum is recycled.

But Ms. Norton conceded that steel can't compete with aluminum if the consumer or recycler is interested in profit or helping charity.

"The opportunity to provide charitable donations through recycling is certainly a laudable effort, [but] most other recyclable materials, including steel, cannot currently provide that option," Ms. Norton said.

The overwhelming advantage of aluminum over steel in resale value is the factor that Alcoa hopes to exploit the most with its public awareness campaign.

In 1989, 60 percent of the 86 billion aluminum cans used nationwide were recycled, compared with 20 percent of the steel cans.

For the first six months of this year, the steel recycling rate was 30 percent.

Flashing his printed aluminum business card, Mr. Cobb of Alcoa said it's not worth most people's time to recycle if there isn't some financial motive, whether it's for themselves or for a charity.

George DiPietro, metals manager of Owl Corp., a Baltimore for-profit recycling company, said he accepts some steel cans, but mostly as a service to his regular customers. Aluminum, he said, is much more worth his while, so he recycles much more of it -- about 30,000 pounds of cans every two weeks.

"I can get 7 cents per pound for steel cans, but with my overhead it really doesn't pay me to handle steel unless it goes to 10 cents or 15 cents [per pound]," he said.

By contrast, Mr. DiPietro can pay 35 to 37 cents per pound for aluminum and still profit by about 20 cents per pound when he sells it to a smelting plant.

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