When someone tosses a soda can into a recycle bin, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to travel through Berea, Kentucky, at some point. That’s because of the Novelis recycling plant located there, which processes an incredible amount of aluminum.
“Novelis recycles about 60 billion cans a year,” says plant manager Ramon Ferrufino Romero. “If you were to line up one can on top of the other, it would reach the earth to the moon six times and back. That’s how many cans we recycle each year.”
“Every single can that exists out there in the world, we touch about 20 percent of them,” says Radford Ballard, DC Area Leader for Novelis Berea. “They come through these doors and we recycle them and we make them into something new. We recycle some from South America, we get some from the Middle East. We get some from Puerto Rico.”
The plant has been in operation since 1989, and a lot has changed for the better since then.
“Years ago, you were in the heat or the cold a lot it was a lot of much more physical work,” says Ballard. “But automation has increased and equipment’s gotten better. We do more than double now what we did 20 years ago with very few more production workers and a whole lot less physical work.”
At the Novelis plant, cans are shredded, decoated, and melted, and impuritites are removed from the aluminum. The material is then formed into slabs of pure aluminum weighing 57,000 pounds. Those slabs are shipped by rail to Logan Aluminum, a sister plant in Russellville, Kentucky. There, the aluminum is rolled out to a gauge of ten-thousandths of an inch or even less.
According to Logan plant manager Ken Perdue, if you were to unroll a finished coil of aluminum, it would be eight to ten miles long.
“Millions of cans can be made from one coil,” says Perdue. “Almost any beverage can that you see, there’s a good chance a lot of the can sheet came from this plant.”
Aluminum can be used for more than just beverage containers. Some of the material produced by Novelis will go on to be made into parts for cars, houses, and trailers.
“Aluminum in its nature is infinitely recyclable,” says Ballard. “You can take aluminum and you can recycle it ten times and it’s always going to be what you started with.
“How can you not recycle aluminum cans?” says Perdue. “A can should never end up in a landfill.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2410, which originally aired on February 23, 2019. Watch the full episode.