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EARTHWATCH

Can-Do Spirit : The focus is usually on aluminum containers, but steel containers also have a variety of valuable uses when recycled.

March 19, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Alessi was having fun. He was trying to figure out what would happen if folks in Simi Valley stopped recycling their tin cans.

Alessi's company, G.I. Rubbish, picks up the residential trash in Simi Valley.

"If people didn't put the cans in the curbside recycling bin, if they put them in the trash bag instead and I had to carry them to the landfill. . . . ." He paused to work his calculator. In one year, he said, Simi Valley would have the equivalent of "a pile of tin cans waist-deep in every grocery and convenience store in town."

Actually, encouraging the residents of 26,000 Simi Valley houses to use the recycling bins they received from the city is like preaching to the saved.

According to Alessi, they are already separating their trash and putting out recyclables at an 80% participation rate. And it seems that they aren't putting the wrong things in the wrong container either.

The "contamination rate" is 2%--which means hardly any old socks or moldy pizza mixed with the cans and bottles. That's why Simi Valley is now the first city in Southern California to declare even paint cans to be recyclable. Households there can evidently be trusted to empty them out or check to see they're dried out before putting them in the recycling bin.

You may well be wondering by now: Why is all this attention being paid to tin cans of various sorts? Aside from taking up costly space in landfills, who cares?

The focus is usually on aluminum cans. Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, recycles aluminum cans amid full media glare. They announced last week they've recycled 17 billion aluminum cans. They're to be congratulated for "closing the loop" in this category. After all, they sell an equal number of filled cans that, but for their efforts, could end up littering the world. But aluminum has high value. It even says so on the can--"redemption value."

Tin cans--or steel cans as they are called in the business world--fetch only up to $30 a ton even after crushing and bailing. Aluminum brings three times that.

It costs companies such as Alessi's or big operators such as the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation more money to collect the stuff than they get back from steel scrap dealers. Haulers are restricted in what they can take to Ventura County landfills.

So cities provide curbside recycling or neighborhood recycling centers to get citizens involved. They get grants and other breaks from state and county and city governments.

But the steel-can story isn't just one of colossal nuisance. It's actually kind of fun and even patriotic. Did you know that the steel rods that went into building all of our new concrete freeways and bridges used to be steel cans? And the sparkling new steel towers in the downtowns of Sunbelt cities used to be Chevrolets.

Electric-oven steel-smelting mills have popped up in the strangest places, such as Sacramento and on the Mississippi River in the last 10 years. The new ore fields are in our kitchens and in our garages. Literally. Currently, 60% of yesterday's cars, yesterday's washers and even yesterday's ships get recycled.

But Americans are only recycling a little more than a quarter of their steel cans, according to the Steel Recycling Partnership, an industry group. Because of efforts such as Simi Valley's and yours and mine as citizen recyclers, steel-can recycling is expected to be 60% by the mid-1990s.

This is a good news-bad news scenario. As we recycle and reuse the steel, we're cleaning up the landscape plus building an all-American industry. We're even chewing up imported cars and using them for domestic manufacturing of all kinds. But as we recycle, we increase the supply of steel scrap--thus keeping the price down. Therefore cities will have to continue subsidizing and encouraging the collection of tin cans.

But there are more factors than just money to consider. Steel quality gets better when steel is made from scrap rather than from iron ore with its inherent impurities.

And schlepping coal and ore all over the continent, as we used to do, burned up a lot of fuel and fouled a lot of air.

If this giant Pac-Man of an industry has already reached a point where it's already gobbling up things like Simi Valley's old paint cans at such a rate, won't they eventually run out of scrap?

I addressed this query to Nucor Corp., probably the country's largest producer of structural steel made from scrap. Chairman of the Board Ken Iverson gave me the following answer:

"If we don't get enough old cans, vehicle hulks, demolition site steel, etc., here in the U.S.--there's always Russia!"

* FYI

Simi Valley isn't the only Ventura County community with a good record of steel-can recycling. If you have a question about your community, call the Ventura County Sanitation District at 658-4623. Drake Van Camp can put you in touch with steel-can recycling programs where you live or give you background on this surprising topic.

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