Aluminium demand takes its toll

Graphic: global consumption of aluminium

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The world has an insatiable appetite for aluminium - but producing one tonne of aluminium creates 13 tonnes of waste, consisting of 10 tonnes of rock and 3 tonnes of toxic sludge.

Aluminium, known as aluminum in some parts of the world, is also one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce.

Production of aluminium is the largest consumer of energy for any material on a per-weight basis and the largest electricity energy consumer of any manufactured product.

However, recycling aluminium only uses one-fifth of the amount of energy required for primary production.

Millions of tonnes of rust-coloured toxic sludge are stored world-wide, creating the possibility of further ecological disasters like the one recently witnessed in Hungary.

"Apart from the environmental issues, there is also the cost in human lives, as events at the plant in Ajka have shown," says Julian Kirby of the campaign group Friends of the Earth.

Ideal material

Aluminium is mostly used for transport, construction, engineering and packaging, with two-thirds of annual consumption coming from primary production and one-third from recycling.

The hunger for the metal has seen China double its aluminium production from six million tons in 2006, to more than 13 million tons in 2009.

Smelting of the ore mainly occurs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Russia and the United States.

Because smelting is an energy-intensive process, regions with excess natural gas supplies, such as the United Arab Emirates, are becoming aluminium refiners.

In today's energy-conscious society, aluminium is the preferred material for transport applications - in particular, when weight reduction and fuel consumption is a crucial factor.

Audi A8 Lighter cars save on fuel bills and are more efficient, thus producing less CO2 emissions

Aircraft manufacturers have used aluminium for many years. The metal accounts for 80% of the weight of unloaded air transport.

That approach is now being used more extensively in the production of motor vehicles.

Models such as the Jaguar XJ and Audi 8 are predominantly made of aluminium.

While most vehicles now run on petrol or diesel, aluminium cars are ideally suited for the use of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and more increasingly, electric or hydrogen-powered.

Recycling

The most common form of aluminium that people come across is in packaging, especially the ring-pull cans used for beer and soft drinks.

Can makers in the US produce 100 billion aluminium cans a year - the equivalent of one can her head of population per day.

Graphic showing can recycling rates around the world

Aluminium is 100% recyclable without any loss of its natural qualities and recovery of the metal has become an important process of the aluminium industry.

Recycling involves melting the scrap, a process that requires only 5% of the energy used to produce aluminium from ore.

Recycling was a low-profile activity until the late 1960s, when the growing use of aluminium beverage cans brought it to the public awareness.

Shining example

In Europe, aluminium experiences high rates of recycling, ranging from 42% of beverage cans, 85% of construction materials and 95% of transport vehicles.

Leading the field for the amount of aluminium being recycled is Brazil, which achieves 97%, followed closely by Japan.

There are differing reasons why each of these countries manages to accomplish such high levels, however.

Start Quote

The good price of aluminium and the inequalities of the country drives many poor people to collecting used cans for recycling”

End Quote Henio de Nicola Brazilian Aluminium Association

Japan achieves its targets with legislation, making it mandatory to recycle there.

In Brazil, however, it is social and economic inequalities which are the driving factor.

According to Henio de Nicola at the Brazilian Aluminium Association (ABAL), there are about one million people collecting garbage in Brazil for sale, and about one-quarter of those work with aluminium.

"It is a sum of different factors," he says.

"First, the aluminium cans industry in Brazil was born in the 1980s. So when the industry established itself here, the channels for recycling were built simultaneously," he says.

The association also engaged in a programme to educate the population about recycling.

"The second factor is that the cans are very profitable and have a lot of aluminium. This makes recycled cans a very good product to be commercialised," he explains.

"The third factor, which really helps explain Brazil's difference to the rest of the world, is that Brazil has a big gap of inequalities between the rich and the poor.

Aluminium facts

  • It is the most abundant metal in the earth's crust
  • It is mined from bauxite, which makes up 8% of the earth's surface
  • Large deposits of bauxite are found in Australia, Brazil, Guinea and Jamaica
  • It is the third most abundant element overall, after oxygen and silicon
  • It is a good thermal and electrical conductor
  • Its mirror finish has the highest reflectance of any metal
  • It is soft, durable, lightweight and malleable
  • Corrosion resistance is excellent because a thin surface layer of aluminium oxide forms when the metal is exposed to air

"The good price of aluminium and the inequalities of the country drive many poor people to collecting used cans for recycling."

People in Brazil collect aluminium cans to increase their earnings or sometimes, to make an entire living out of it.

Economic sense

Recycling of aluminium cans is a $830m business in Brazil and each collector from a poor family earns an average $1,186 per year with aluminium cans.

The high index brings huge economic benefits to Brazil.

Since each kilogramme of recycled aluminium requires 19 times less energy than primary production, Brazil saves enough energy to supply a city with one million inhabitants for a whole year.

Brazil's carbon footprint in aluminium production is estimated to be one-third of the global average, making it 10 times more energy efficient than China.

This is because most of the energy used by the aluminium industry there comes from clean hydro-plants.

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