Closing the loop: how to improve aluminium’s circularity
The inherent recyclability of aluminium can be further exploited as the industry pursues its sustainability goals
Over a hundred years since its commercialisation, aluminium remains one of the most useful resources in the modern world. The central role it plays in the transport, construction, packaging and renewable energy sectors means demand is expected to increase by 81 per cent by 2050, according to the International Aluminium Institute (IAI).
Among aluminium’s strikingly useful properties is its infinite recyclability – aluminium is the most recycled and recyclable of all materials. Aluminium can be reused over and over again, meaning both aluminium and its alloys can be melted down and reused without any detriment to its mechanical properties. With such a credential, the metal can play a vital role in meeting sustainability goals throughout the value chain. Around 75 per cent of the almost 1bn tonnes of aluminium ever produced is still in productive use today. Additionally, recycled metal requires up to 95 per cent less energy than primary production from ore, reducing both emissions and costs. This provides a double incentive to boost recycling rates.
Collecting and reprocessing used aluminium is now an industry priority, with the IAI estimating that 7mn tonnes are still lost each year. “Aluminium can be used in a variety of ways to contribute to a more sustainable society,” says Pernelle Nunez, IAI Deputy Secretary General and Director of Sustainability, “With society’s focus on finding ways to fight climate change, increasing circularity is paramount. If we do, the opportunities ahead for aluminium look promising. However, in order to realise them, there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome.”
“As the world’s population continues to grow, the aluminium industry will certainly continue to have a vital role to play”
Miles Prosser, Secretary General, IAI
With needs for aluminium expected to continue to increase, the IAI forecasts that recycled aluminium could meet half of that demand. “With ambitious collection targets for used beverage cans and improved recycling technologies for foil, this rate could even be higher”, says Marlen Bertram, IAI’s Director of Scenarios & Forecasts. “This is why the IAI is campaigning to ensure end-of-life products are returned into the aluminium recycling loop, given the economic and environmental value of the metal in the global economy.”
Miles Prosser is the IAI’s Secretary General, and is keen to see improvements in aluminium’s circularity. “Improving aluminium’s already high rates of recycling will require not just greater effort and investment, but also the development of new approaches – such as that being pioneered for aluminium foil in composite packaging – and through improved product design. As the world’s population continues to grow, one thing is certain: the aluminium industry will continue to have a vital role to play in our increasingly circular economy,” he says.
Published last year, European Aluminium’s Circular Economy Action Plan suggests that 50 per cent of EU demand for aluminium could be supplied by recycling, reducing dependence on imports and avoiding up to 39mn tonnes of CO2 emissions. There is money to be made and saved, too. Today the reprocessing of end-of-life aluminium into new raw material is a €3bn market.
“Eco-friendly designs need to be more than an afterthought to build in cradle-to-cradle sustainability”
Paul Wharton, EVP for Hydro Extruded Solutions, Norsk Hydro
Research published last month by the IAI into the recycling of beverage container materials demonstrated that, on average, 71 per cent of all aluminium cans are recycled globally, 34 per cent more than glass or PET plastic. The clean, homogenous design of cans also makes them highly recyclable via simple remelting – just as well, given that 180bn are manufactured annually.
Other industry leaders are also taking active steps to close the loop. Ramon Arratia, Vice President, Global Public Affairs of the global packaging supplier Ball Corporation, says: “Recycling is an important part of Ball’s strategy because it is the biggest single lever to reduce the carbon footprint of our products, it makes economic sense and it’s the best insurance policy against the geopolitical and inflationary risks of imported aluminium.”
Norsk Hydro has set up a design agency, Hydro EcoDesign, with the intention of helping businesses improve their functionality and reduce the footprint of their products. “The increased focus on recycling means we need to think about eco-friendly designs that define how easily the product can be reused at end of life. It needs to be more than an afterthought to build in cradle-to-cradle sustainability,” says Paul Warton, EVP for Hydro Extruded Solutions, Norsk Hydro.
Another key plank in achieving greater circularity is improved sorting. Alufoil, the European Aluminium Foil Association is encouraging initiatives to optimise the recycling of discarded foil, which is commonly incinerated and converted to energy. During the process, a significant proportion of thin gauge aluminium foil melts and is collected from the bottom of the incinerator, sorted and returned for reuse by separating it from the bottom ashes – which can be reused in road construction.
With the pandemic and the war in Ukraine pushing the price of aluminium to record heights, the recovery of every possible gram has now become a financial, as well as a sustainable imperative. To achieve this will require all hands on deck: consumers, industry leaders, policymakers and governments. It will also require appropriate policies, and investment, as well as a total transformation in consumer purchasing habits and lifestyle to deliver the kind of change that will help close the loop.