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Tin Can Resurfaces as Hot Recycling Item

March 19, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | Richard Kahlenberg is a writer who has been involved with environmental issues for 20 years.

"My steel cans have become part of my regular dishes," recycling specialist Pam Cortelyou confided when I called her county office to ask about can recycling in North County. Although not everyone approaches the effort as dutifully, attitudes about recycling the cans that package fruits, vegetables, tuna, nuts, candies, juices et al are changing.

Cities are no longer allowed to dump items that have been designated recyclable into the county's landfills--and steel or "tin" cans are now on the list of recyclables. The cans, made of steel with a light plating of tin, have come to be referred to both ways, but it is the steel that is being mined by recyclers.

When the cans arrive at the recycling center, they are separated from other containers by using a magnet. It's not necessary to wash the cans before recycling, but many people choose to rinse them to help keep their recycling area neat and odor free.

Since the beginning of the year, every city and unincorporated area in North County has expanded its aluminum, plastic and glass container recycling to include the humble can.

"There's not one city in North County that's not working to its best ability," said Debbie Castillo, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works. Single-family residences in the incorporated and unincorporated areas of North County have previously been supplied with recycling bins for curbside collecting.

The new rules, which went into effect in North County last fall, were extended to the southern part of San Diego County this month.

State and county officials have been loud in their praise of several North County communities--notably Carlsbad, Solana Beach and Encinitas--for their high rate of glass, paper, plastic and aluminum recycling participation.

But the tin can has been a stepchild. It was ending up in the county landfill, either because folks didn't think it was recyclable--it had no redemption value label on it--or because some cities had expressly said no to its appearance in the recycling bin. All that's history now. The steel can is now "in" when it comes to recycling.

Currently, about 25% of tin cans are recycled--compared to the 75% of aluminium cans that make it back into the system. It is hoped that steel can recycling rates nationwide will climb to 60% or more by the mid '90s. At that point, cans would reach the recycling rates already achieved with other kinds of steel scrap.

There has always been some kind of market for recycling steel cans. Many still remember from their childhood the wartime excitement of collecting and flattening cans for national scrap drives. The metal was "de-tinned" then, as now, and smelted to make trucks, buildings and ships. Until the last decade, American steel mills threw scrap into the smelter with iron ore at a two-to-one ratio. About 30% of steel beams were made from scrap.

But new electric-oven technology installed across the country in the last decade has allowed the efficient processing of scrap steel in the form of discarded cans, auto wrecks, and even demolished inner-city buildings. Now, 100% of steel beams and rods are made from scrap. Steel, it seems, gets purer every time it's melted down and reused. The new smelting operations are located near population centers where scrap is concentrated; no mountains of coal or ore need to be moved around the continent--at great cost--to make steel products.

Most of the scrap recycled locally goes to smelting facilities on the West Coast--companies such as Tampco Steel just southeast of Los Angeles, which produces steel reinforcing rods used in highway and building construction.

For the last few years, North County disposal companies with contracts to collect recyclables have been able to sell steel scrap to brokers for $10 to $20 a ton.

Because it doesn't quite pay for its own collection and delivery to smelters, California and other states are giving grants for can recycling equipment to companies such as Mashburn Sanitation of Vista. The equipment allows them to process cans more efficiently and keep local garbage collection costs down.

The county has a similar program for other collection and processing firms. Government subsidies have actually helped make the county a leader in the manufacture of such equipment. Solana Recyclers in Encinitas recently purchased its "Materials Recovery Facility" from one such maker, CP Manufacturing of National City.

All this activity depends on individuals putting their empty cans in the recycling bin rather than the trash bag.

Ken Iverson, founder and chairman of Nucor Corp., one of the largest smelters of scrap steel in the United States, said there is so much scrap in our country and rest of the world that there will never be a shortage of it. "If we don't get old cans, vehicle hulks, demolition site steel, et cetera here in the U.S., there's always Russia," he said.

If you have questions about recycling of tin cans, here are the numbers to call in North County:

Vista and San Marcos: Mashburn Sanitation, 744-2700.

Carlsbad: Coast Waste Management, 452-9810.

Oceanside: Waste Management of North County, 439-2824.

Escondido: Escondido Disposal, 745-3203.

Fallbrook: Fallbrook Refuse, 728-6114.

Solana Beach and Encinitas: Solana Recyclers, 436-7987.

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