The Material Recovery Facility (MRF) is located at 600 Moore Rd. (Metro Wire photo)

Column: The history of aluminum, from bauxite to cans

By Amanda Haffele

Aluminum has been unknowingly used for thousands of years.

Aluminum comes from bauxite. It takes about four tons of bauxite to produce two tons of alumina, a powdery white oxide of aluminum. The Persians used bauxite rich with alumina to create sturdy pottery. The Egyptians and Babylonians used it in cosmetics, fabrics, and medicines.

It wasn’t until 1808 when Sir Humphry Davy proved the existence of aluminum and gave it its name. Over the next 60 years different processes to extract alumina (aluminum) from bauxite were discovered, decreasing the cost of aluminum from $545/pound to $17/pound, the same cost as silver.

Accounting for inflation, today that would be about $17,000/pound down to $530/pound.

Royals and wealthy families were the only ones who could afford to make silverware, crowns, and other goods from this material.

This semi-precious metal piqued the attention of a gentleman by the name of Charles Martin Hall. He studied this material at length and in 1886 created an economic way to extract alumina from bauxite. By 1893 Hall’s discovery drove the price per pound of aluminum down to 74 cents (about $23 by today’s standards).

Soon tea pots, auto parts, electric wires, cables, and utensils were all made from aluminum. In 1907, Hall changed the name of his company from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company to the Aluminum Company of America or Alcoa for short. Today Alcoa is the leader in the manufacturing of aluminum products.

The aluminum can, however, was created in the late 1920s early 1930s to hold beer. The first aluminum can was actually a bi-metal can, meaning these cans had a steel top and bottom and the middle was made of aluminum. These cans required a ‘church key’ to open them as the original beverage containers didn’t have a pop top or pull tab.

It’s said that the inventor of the pull tab, Ermal Cleon Fraze, “found himself without a church key while on a family picnic. He resorted to piercing his beer can on the fender of a car, and in the process lost much of the can’s contents, (according to the Aluminum Association).”

It wasn’t until Prohibition that cans held other liquids besides beer. The aluminum can that we use today was introduced by Coors for the first time in 1959. At this time Coors was offering the first incentive to recycle these cans; one cent for every can brought back to the brewery.

Recycling Aluminum

The aluminum can is infinitely recyclable. This means it can be used, recycled, and turned back into a new can endlessly. In fact, an aluminum beverage container can be recycled and back on the store shelf as a new container in as little as 60 days.

Because it takes so much bauxite to produce a small amount of aluminum, recycling is a very important part of its lifecycle. It takes 95 percent less energy to make a can from recycled aluminum than from raw materials. Aluminum cans today contain approximately 70 percent recycled content. In other words, 70 percent of an aluminum can be used to be something else – a can of soda, a baseball bat, or maybe even a car part.

Lastly, did you know that cat food and sardine cans are made from aluminum? Recycle these with your aluminum cans for a little extra cash or to increase your household’s recycling rate.


Amanda Haffele is the Portage County Solid Waste Director. She works at the Material Recovery Facility, 600 Moore Rd., Plover, and can be reached at 715.343.6297 or [email protected].