RIO DE JANEIRO - For the last nine years Brazil has led the world in recycling aluminum cans, of which it reuses 96.5 percent, and it now has a strong chance of reaching the 100 percent mark.
This is the assessment of Henio de Nicola, recycling coordinator for the Brazilian Aluminum Association (ABAL).
That success is due to a "fantastic team of people, who have thought about the recycling process ever since the cans first arrived in Brazil in 1989," de Nicola said.
In an analogy with football, the expert described how first of all the defence was set up, in the shape of a well-structured processing chain, independent of any government subsidy, where all the participants are rewarded by the added value of the aluminum itself.
Secondly, there is a mid-field of social programs for environmental education, aimed at the general public. And lastly, the strikers: more than 180,000 Brazilians who collect cans daily all over the country.
Josias, a good attacker on this team, is one of the collectors who works in the center of Rio de Janeiro.
He plunges his hands into every garbage container on his daily round, stoops to pick up empty cans from the street, and knows reliable bartenders and restaurant owners who save their empties for him.
"The cans are my daily bread, they pay my bills and support my family," Josias told IPS. He collects 15 kilograms of aluminum cans a day, and sells them to the collection center downtown for about 30 reals (17 dollars).
Thanks to workers like Josias, 96.5 percent of aluminum cans are recycled in Brazil. The rest, according to de Nicola, are not accounted for "because there are a few places where we can't measure the recycling rate."
More than 14 billion cans were recycled last year, equivalent to four ships the size of the Titanic.
The recycled cans provide a livelihood for more than 180,000 families, as well as business for the owners of the collecting and storage centers.
Every day, over 300 people come to Armando da Costa's storage warehouse in central Rio de Janeiro, to deliver about 500 kilos of aluminum containers, especially beverage cans.
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"My warehouse business has helped me raise my kids and support them through university," da Costa told IPS. This is made possible by the healthy added value on recycled aluminum, which makes all parts of the process profitable.
From the storage facilities, the cans are transported by truck to large industrial complexes, creating jobs and incomes for drivers.
For instance, a truck driver from Foz de Iguaçu on the border with Argentina and Paraguay may take 14 tonnes of cans 1,200 kilometers by road to Pindamonhangaba, a town in the state of São Paulo and the location of a major recycling centre, contributing to the 250 tonnes a day that are melted and recycled at an industrial plant.
Recycled aluminum has three major factors in its favor, according to purchaser Osmar Marchioni, who works for another company in Pindamonhangaba.
"If I use virgin aluminum, I have to add on extra costs, such as 95 percent more for electricity, and the cost of mining bauxite, the mineral that contains aluminum. Furthermore, the recycled aluminum economy benefits all the people involved," he told IPS.
After burning, melting and recycling, aluminum conserves 95 percent of its original chemical characteristics.
"Due to these factors, cans are an excellent example, not only in the aluminum chain, but also as a benchmark for developing the recycling chain for other materials," de Nicola said.
Brazil has few policies for recycling waste, he said. Early this year in Rio de Janeiro, the build-up of garbage was one of the main causes of flooding in the city, he pointed out.
The statistics paint a clear picture. Second to aluminum cans is paper, 79.6 percent of which is recycled, and far behind in third place is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used to make plastic bottles for soft drinks and water. Only half of all used PET bottles are recycled.
PET can be reused not only to produce new bottles, but also to make carpets for cars, and swimming pools. Fibers made from the reclaimed material are also used in the textile industry to make garments, including the Brazilian football team's jerseys.
In 2006, aluminum can recycling reached a level of 91.7 percent in Japan and 52 percent in the United States and the European Union.