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Aluminium: shaping a better tomorrow

Fifty years after the inauguration of the International Aluminium Institute, Miles Prosser reflects on aluminium’s contribution to sustainable development.

Fifty years ago, if someone phoned when you were out you missed the call, your car would have been a gas guzzler made mostly of steel, any packaging you used went to landfill because there was no way to recycle it, ladders were considered heavy gear. Today, your phone goes with you wherever you go, electric vehicles are rapidly replacing petrol and diesel, recycling has become an industry, and most people can handle a step ladder. One particular metal has played a key role in bringing about these changes.

Aluminium comes with special qualities: it’s strong, lightweight, versatile, rust-resistant, a good conductor of heat and electricity, comes from an abundant source of raw material and is recyclable. It’s mind-boggling to note that around 75% of the almost 1.5 billion tonnes of aluminium ever produced is still in productive use today. Aluminium has been in production for well over a hundred years and many tech innovations of the 20th century were made possible through the use of aluminium.

The Wright Brothers’ pioneering airplane in 1903 contained aluminium as did Henry Ford’s first mass-produced car. Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite had a sphere made of aluminium alloy, the Empire State Building in New York, a wonder of the world in 1931, was the first skyscraper to use aluminium extensively in its construction. In more recent years alumimium has been a vital component in electricity distribution lines, mobile IT, fuel-efficient cars, high-speed trains, wide-bodied aircraft and packaging of foods and beverages.

One entrepreneur who led the curve in adopting aluminium packaging was Bill Coors, a German American brewer whose team of 100 researchers debuted the two-piece aluminium can in January 1959. Coors wanted to improve the flavour of his beer, previously packaged in heavier steel cans. Whether intentional or not, his business became an early pioneer of sustainability in pursuing an alternative to the heaps of tin and steel cans being wastefully discarded. By 1967, Coca Cola and Pepsi, the two leading soft drinks manufacturers of the time, had come on board by switching to aluminium.

Increasingly, manufacturers realised the wide-ranging benefits of this resource. However, with increased demand and production came greater responsibility for the industry to maintain the highest production standards.

The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) was established in 1972 to engage and unite the worldwide aluminium community – bauxite, alumina, and aluminium producers; and aluminium processors. The fundamental principles on which the Institute was founded remain embedded in its work today - leading the industry in improving sustainability performance and demonstrating the benefits of aluminium products.

But our world faces different challenges today – we are more acutely aware of the environmental impact of industrialisation, urbanisation and consumption. Greenhouse gases, for example, can live in the atmosphere for decades, so the emissions produced 50 years ago when the Institute was formed are still impacting today.

The good news is that aluminium can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, by increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles. However, aluminium production currently contributes more than 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the earth’s atmosphere, so the drive for a sustainable future isn’t simple. It presents complex challenges and opportunities for our industry to take the lead.

Our mitigation efforts will focus on changing the processes that cause significant emissions and consume natural resources. Indeed, many aluminium producers are already pioneering solutions that reduce their environmental footprint without compromising product quality. Aluminium companies are developing technologies such as inert anode electrolysis and automatic sorting of recycled aluminium alloys and making broad-scale investments in technologies such as renewable electricity generation and electrification of thermal processes.

We need to adopt these technologies in as quick and efficient a manner as possible. We cannot afford to “wait and see” when it comes to emissions reduction. One thing we already know is that Aluminium can be recycled again and again – almost infinitely. In fact, much of the aluminium produced fifty years ago is still playing an integral role in manufacturing today, and now, with comprehensive global data and material flow analysis, the International Aluminium Institute can track scrap annually from source to consumer by product, quality, form and region.

Today, around 180 billion aluminium cans are used for beverages – 35% of these are from recycled cans each year. In future, even more aluminium will be produced from recycled scrap, a projected 81 million tonnes in 2050, compared with 32 million tonnes today. This is a hugely important target because aluminium produced from recycled scrap requires only 5% of the energy used to make new aluminium. It’s worth noting that, on average, one tonne of recycled aluminium saves over 16 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions globally – that’s the equivalent of driving more than 40,000 miles in an average vehicle in the United States. Viewed from another angle, recycled aluminium saves enough electricity each year to power the whole of France.

Fifty years ago, as aluminium use in industry and the domestic sphere began to flourish, the industry saw the need to collaborate and address key environmental issues. Much work has been done, but the task is never finished. As we seek a sustainable future in a decarbonised world, aluminium has the qualities that consumers seek. The industry has the expertise and passion to find the solutions needed to reduce the carbon intensity of our primary metal, and through this, aluminium and the industry will be shaping a better tomorrow.

Miles Prosser is the Secretary General of the International Aluminium Institute (IAI)

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