While more Americans have been spending more time in their homes for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, their buying habits at the grocery store have thrown some product supply chains out of whack.

In the early part of the pandemic, news outlets reported bottlenecks in the agriculture industries first, particularly in the pork and beef supply chains. Some of that effect rippled on to hit consumers in the wallet. Meanwhile, grocers had a hard time keeping paper and sanitary products on the shelves and had to impose purchase limits on some items to prevent hoarding.

These shortages brought to light the incredibly complex, but largely invisible, supply chains that keep American businesses running and give consumers access to products. It doesn’t take much to disrupt the smooth flow of goods, and the shock of the pandemic was both unprecedented and widespread. It affected not only goods but the packaging they come in.

The metal and scrap industries were among the earlier ones to feel some of the impact of the pandemic as manufacturing activity slowed and even halted in China, and import-export activity was momentarily disrupted. In the U.S., companies deemed essential to the manufacturing supply chain were largely allowed to continue operating in at least some capacity through the pandemic and ensure that material continued to be processed, and in time, manufacturing picked back up.

Toward the end of the summer, there was evidence of a shortage in aluminum cans. With bars and restaurants largely closed or limited in their services in many states, and some people not feeling comfortable going out for food and drink regardless, more Americans have been drinking beverages at home. Everything from beer and wine to vegetable juice to energy drinks and iced coffee to coconut water comes in aluminum cans these days.

Cans are one of the most commonly recycled items.

Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and can be turned around quickly: it can take about 60 days for a recycled can to be back on the shelf as a new can. Cans are typically created from one enormous roll of aluminum sheeting that can weigh nearly ten tons. Depending on the size of the can, one roll of aluminum can produce anywhere from 600,000 – 1,000,000 cans. There are roughly 32 cans in a pound of aluminum.

Nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.  If all of the aluminum currently in circulation were recycled, there would be enough supply that we would never have to mine for more of the ore it originates from. But it’s not the metal that caused the disruption in the can supply during the pandemic.

What’s the Holdup

Manufacturers didn’t have the production capacity to keep up with shopper’s demand for canned goods. And while more facilities can be constructed to increase the supply, those will still take time, likely into 2021, until they are in production.

“The aluminum beverage can manufacturing industry has seen unprecedented demand for this environmentally friendly container prior to and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Aluminum Association, an industry group representing the metal’s manufacturers, said in a statement. “Many new beverages are coming to market in cans, and other long-standing can customers are moving away from plastic bottles due to ongoing environmental concerns around plastic pollution. Consumers also appear to be favoring the portability and storability of cans as they spend more time at home.”

Breweries and distributors of alcoholic beverages are feeling the pinch and not able to keep as much product in stock. And you might notice you’re not able to get your favorite products off the shelf as easily, or at least, not in the same case.

There’s No Reason to stop Recycling

In the last few years, many local recycling programs have had to change what kind of material they accept in response to international regulations around waste import and export. The hardest hit materials were paper and plastic, and this caused some confusion among habitual recyclers who were now told that their sour cream tubs and yogurt cups were no good – because there was nowhere for that material to go.

That’s not the case with the current can shortage.

Consumers are still recycling cans and recyclers are still processing them to be re-introduced to the manufacturing process – which still requires material to support existing production. However, despite the uptick in can purchasing, the pandemic has still affected the number of cans entering the recycling stream. The need for more can manufacturing to support consumer demand hasn’t had a significant impact on scrap aluminum pricing.

“Aluminum as a commodity has not been impacted, as we’re seeing about 15% – 20% less recycling of cans from this time last year,” said Joel Fogel, VP Non-Ferrous at Cohen. “Stay at home orders kept our customers at home and not at our recycling facilities.”

Other states have adopted different programs for recovering cans and bottles that saw a slowdown when businesses began shutting down in the spring. “In some states like Michigan and California cans can’t be taken to scrap recycling centers,” Joel explained. “They are on a deposit system where consumers take cans to various outlets like grocery stores for recycling. While these stores remained open, access to aluminum recycling was greatly reduced.”

Cohen accepts aluminum cans and other aluminum products for recycling. Pricing on this material changes regularly; please call ahead prior to your visit for the most up to date information.