Aluminum can be recycled using only 5% of the energy compared to using new materials to make a product. It’s estimated that only 40% of aluminum cans are recycled. Given that aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and recycling it produces more jobs, material, uses less energy and reduces greenhouse gases, how do we increase recycling rates for it? As with all good habits, the key is to start cultivating this practice when you’re young.

Jessica Alexanderson at Scrap University Kids launched a program, The Million Cans Recycling Contest, challenging kids to a nationwide aluminum can recycling competition. They have already collected more than 250,000 cans across the country and their goal is to reach one million. ISRI News sat down with Alexanderson to learn more about this initiative and how ISRI members can collaborate. If you and your company would like to learn more, please contact her, jess@scrapuniversity.com.

Could you tell me how you discovered the recycled materials industry?

I grew up in Utah and we didn’t recycle anything. It might be better now, but as a kid, the only thing I really remember recycling was metal bullet casings, because my dad was a police officer and a firearms instructor. He’d take us to shooting practice and then after, when it was safe and empty, we’d go around with buckets, picking up shell casings to recycle.

I moved to Seattle, Washington back in 2008 and worked for Evergreen Shipping for 15 years. I would ship containers all over the world in cargo ships; our top exports were recycled paper, metal and plastic materials. That’s how I learned about the recycling industry, but I never really knew much about the material that was inside the containers.

That was a very stressful time. Shipping is crazy. To de-stress, I started scuba diving. I would go two or three times a week into the Seattle area and just take pictures of our amazing underwater sea creatures. I just loved it down there, but it was also really heartbreaking because I kept seeing so much garbage in the ocean. When I found out we only recycle 45% of cans in this country, I thought “that’s pathetic and just wrong, because cans are infinitely recyclable.” So I started raising that awareness and taking action. I’m always doing cleanup dives to get the garbage out of the ocean. That’s how I started getting into the industry.

How did you get involved with Scrap University Kids?

I met Brad from Detroit Scrap. Brad grew up in a recycling yard family in Detroit, so he knew from a young age to never throw metal in the garbage. He was one of my customers at Evergreen Shipping. I used to ship all of his containers of metal and car batteries to be recycled. One day I asked if he was hiring and he said, “I would hire you in a second to do our shipping department. But is that what you want to do?” And I’m like, no, I’ve done that for 15 years. I want to do something to help the oceans and our planet, and I know it has to start with little kids. He found that interesting because he had this story, The Girl Who Recycled 1 Million Cans written down on paper with his best friend’s wife, Shazia. She’s a schoolteacher and it’s based on his two daughters, Ellie and Lexi.

Brad hired me to help him turn this story into a book. We decided we wanted to do four books to show the full circle of metal recycling. We came up with a 30-year goal to eliminate metal from the trash by teaching young kids about recycling in a fun way!

What does each book focus on?

The first book, The Girl Who Recycled 1 Million Cans, which came out in September 2022, is about aluminum cans. The protagonist Ellie finds out she gets money for the cans she recycles and so she decides she wants to recycle a million so she can buy a unicorn — it’s super cute. Then she gets her whole school involved because all of her friends also want to get a unicorn. The book has been taking off. Everybody loves it, which is great to hear.

Our second book, A Recycling Adventure to the Scrap Yard, just hit the shelves! We’re super excited about it. The main idea behind this book is to shed light on what a scrap yard is all about. You know, like back when I was growing up, I had no clue! We dive into some cool stuff about the periodic table and how our planet is this metal wonderland.

The story follows these kids who realize that loads of metal stuff is just getting tossed in the garbage. So, they make it their mission to spread the word and educate their pals and neighbors. Picture this — they go around town with their adorable little red wagons, picking up all sorts of metal treasures like horseshoes, unicorn shoes, Christmas lights, wires, pots, and pans. Then, they haul their finds to the scrap yard in Daddy’s old truck to cash it in for their school.

But here’s the twist — their dad’s old pickup truck breaks down on the way, giving them a front-row seat to see how even that gets recycled. We want to capture the magic of scrap yards through our book. It’s a fun ride, and we hope it sparks some curiosity and a sense of wonder about the whole metal recycling scene! Our readers also learn the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

We are about to start working on our third book, it’s going to be all about the melting process. The fourth book will be manufacturing focused so it will show things that are made out of recycled metals.

What’s the Million Cans Recycling Contest?

The can recycling contest we’re doing is called the Million Cans Recycling Contest. We just started it in October with the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI). They represent the largest aluminum can sheet makers and can makers in the country. They funded the money to buy books.

Eight schools are competing to see who can recycle the most aluminum cans; they have until May of this year. The goal overall is to recycle 1,000,000 cans. CMI generously donated copies of The Girl Who Recycled 1 Million Cans to all of the third graders at the eight schools. They got to go read to the other students and teach everyone about recycling. The school that recycles the most cans based on the number of third graders will win the grand prize of $3,000. The schools get to keep the money from the cans they recycle along with other prizes. This way everyone can learn that recycling metal is a win-win, you help our planet and your local school by saving your cans.

We just reached 250,000 cans — we’re one-fourth of the way there. We can get to a million if we get a little bit more help from local companies near these schools. In Indiana, we have some bars and restaurants saving cans for the schools. In Waco, Texas, we have a bowling alley and a skating rink saving cans. We need a lot of help in South Carolina. South Carolina only recycles 10% of cans. If any ISRI members have any prizes or giveaways that they’d like to donate to any of the schools near them, that would be a fun thing to do too.

Each school has teamed up with a local scrapyard and then they’re also associated with one of the can manufacturers. We have somebody from the yard go in and do a little presentation to the schools about how cool recycling yards are what they do with the aluminum cans there and how they put it through the can baler and squish them, show some of the cool machinery. Then I also have somebody from the actual can company go in and teach the students about how they make new cans out of recycled aluminum, just to show the full circle. Students can see that recycling is like magic! If you put your can in a recycle bin it can be a new can, an iPad, or an airplane someday!

What does the future look like?

Next year, we would love to expand. Brad and I would like to get at least one school in all 50 states and have a nationwide contest. That would be amazing. We are also going to start working on an animated cartoon series about recycling. So please keep your eyes on our website for updates. If kids can learn at a very young age, never, ever throw metal in the garbage, they’re going to remember that their whole lives.

 

Images courtesy of Jessica Alexanderson and Scrap University Kids.

Arnulfo Moreno

Arnulfo Moreno

Arnulfo Moreno is a Communications Manager at ISRI. He is fascinated by the innovation and sustainability found in the recycling industry. He graduated from The Catholic University of America where he majored in Media Studies and minored in Spanish. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with his collection of short stories he hopes to one day finish writing.