Why we should recycle aluminium
Used aluminium can be endlessly recycled without loss in quality.
Only 5 percent of the energy required to produce primary aluminium is needed to remelt aluminium for new uses.
Emissions are reduced and changes in the landscape because of mining and refining are avoided.
Compared to production of “new” aluminium, recycling of post-consumer aluminium (like aluminium cans) saves a lot of energy and CO2.
The world’s stock of aluminium in use is like a resource bank. Around 75 percent of aluminium ever produced is still in use, and some of it has been through countless recycle loops.
With the energy it takes to make aluminium for one new can, we can make enough for 20 recycled ones. So the more times aluminium gets reused, the more energy efficient it becomes.
Many aluminium products have a long life, for instance in cars or buildings, and because of this recycled aluminium can only supply 20-25% of the current aluminium demand. The rest must be produced from primary aluminium.
The recycling industry
The recycling industry plays an important part of the aluminium life cycle. The amount of recycled metal is increasing, and the recyclers have new and better ways to minimize emissions from the smelting of used metal.
- Annual output of old and traded metal has quadrupled from 5 to 20 million metric tons.
- Annual primary metal production has grown from 15 to 44 million tonnes.
Aluminium recycling industry includes:
- Refiners, with equipment that makes them able to produce alloys from customers’ specifications.
- Remelters, that mainly makes products of the same type as their sources (such as used beverage cans into new cans)
- The recycling industry also involves collectors, dismantlers, metal merchants and scrap processors, which deal with the collection and treatment of scrap.
Europe and North America – has an economically strong and technically advanced aluminium recycling industry, generated over the past 70 years.
Japan – stopped domestic primary aluminium production and switched to aluminium recycling in the 1980s. China, India and Russia – has started increasing their recycling activities.
In many countries, authorities are encouraging to recycle more aluminium. Hydro has also set strategic goals to increase our production of recycled metal.
How to improve aluminium recycling
In the future there will be more post-consumer metal scrap returned to the recycling industry, and we need to be prepared.
Hydro is part of an on-going project (with the Norwegian University of Technology and Science and Sintef), which focuses on:
- How to maintain predictable high quality with more recycled metal in the products
- How to reduce metal loss in the melting process
- How to recover energy from organic coating materials
- How to avoid harmful emissions and make the whole production cycle better
- How to develop new alloys that are easier to recycle.
What are the sources for recycled aluminium?
Aircraft, automobiles, bicycles, boats, computers, household appliances, wire and cans are all sources for recycling.
At the end of their useful life, the recycled product may be the same as the original product, like a can to can.
But more often a completely different product is made from recycling, like a car wheel that is recycled into a gearbox.
Recycling and cars
About 25 % of the aluminium produced every year is made for the transportation sector.
The use of aluminium in cars is growing:
- From 1990-2012, aluminium used in cars from Europe went from 50 to 140 kg.
- By 2020 this amount can go to 160 kg, or even 180 kg if smaller cars follow the same development as more expensive cars.
To get the aluminium out of an old car:
- The aluminium parts, such as wheels and cylinder heads, are removed
- The remaining car body is fed into a shredder
- The remaining aluminium parts are separated
Mixed alloy aluminium scrap like this is then usually used to make casting alloys for engines and gearboxes.
In Europe, 95 % of the aluminium scrap from cars is currently being recycled.
Recycling and buildings
Every year, around 13 million metric tons of aluminium is used in construction. As we speak, 220 million metric tons of aluminium is currently in use in buildings worldwide.
After demolishing a building, aluminium (in contrast to other building materials) can be recycled in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable.
In 2004 a study found that collection rates for aluminium in European buildings were between 92 % and 98 %.
Recycling and packaging
There are basically two different types of packaging:
- Food and beverage cans, aerosol cans and menu trays, also called rigid and semi-rigid packaging.
- Flexible packaging; where a thin aluminium foil is laminated as a barrier material to plastics or cardboard.
Aluminium beverage cans are the larger part of rigid and semi-rigid packaging globally. Thanks to techniques developed, its possible to recycle old scrap into ingots that can fabricate wrought products (such as can stock). Scrap like this has high aluminium content and also a high market value.
Flexible packaging waste has low aluminium content, because the packaging is very thin and often laminated with paper and plastic.
The aluminium can still be extracted from laminates by special techniques.
How much packaging material that is collected in each country, depends on a lot of things, government initiatives, deposit systems, recycling charges and even advertising.
In Europe, 30-90 % of cans are collected; the average number for a European country is 70 %. For all rigid packaging put together, the European recycling rate is 50%.
High recycled content
Some authorities and environmental organizations want to have “green labels” on products that contain a lot of recycled material. Because the availability of aluminium scrap is limited, labels like this could lead to discrimination of aluminium versus other materials. Or in other words; to increase the recycled content in one aluminium product we would have to decrease the recycled content in another product.
Aluminium’s high market value means that almost all scrap will always be used for recycling, instead of being wasted or stockpiled.
Hydro and recycling
Hydro is a large remelter of aluminium, with almost 30 facilities worldwide. We remelt process scrap from both or our own production and other companies.
- To grow faster than the market in recycling and take a leading position also in the recycling part of the aluminium value chain.
- To recover 1 million metric tons of contaminated and post-consumer scrap annually by 2020.
- To develop recycling plants that serve internal and external customers with metal products.
To achieve our goals, we first need to exploit our existing capacity. Next step is to invest in recycling to handle scrap volumes from our plants and from our partners’ plants.