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Not all recycled aluminium is equal: Recycling post-consumer scrap is the way to the circular economy

May 03, 2021

Infinitely recyclable with endless uses, aluminium is an ideal metal for the circular and low-carbon economy. In Hydro, we are advocating for transparent standards to ensure that recycling of aluminium contributes to reducing emissions.

Jostein Søreide
Jostein Søreide, Head of Climate Office in Hydro

By Jostein Søreide, Head of Climate Office in Hydro.

As an industry, we have a responsibility to educate our customers and support the circular transition with a clear understanding of the carbon footprint of recycled aluminium. If we don’t account for this accurately, there could be significant consequences.

The difference between pre- and post-consumer scrap

At Hydro, we believe the solution is to recognize that not all recycled aluminum is equal.

When recycled aluminium is made from used beverage cans, windows, or car parts, the material starts another life. Previously used aluminium is referred to as “post-consumer” scrap, and its carbon footprint is close to zero. Recycled aluminium made from secondary production or “pre-consumer” scrap is different. This material comes from ‘leftovers’ in the production process, hence has not yet completed its life and must retain the carbon footprint of its original production process. If this isn’t done, the material’s production emissions are not accounted for.

It matters where and how aluminium is produced

Why is this important? Because transparency is key.

If all scrap is accounted for equally, we lose transparency into the actual carbon footprint of recycled aluminium. By itself, the process of recycling aluminium has a very low carbon footprint, as it only requires 5% of the energy of the original primary production process.

On the other hand, producing primary aluminium requires significantly more energy. Smelting with coal power creates roughly five times more CO2-equivalent emissions per kilo than primary aluminium produced with renewable energy. If we assume all scrap has a carbon footprint of zero and only focus on recycling, we ignore this critical difference in emissions, and we undervalue the importance of post-consumer scrap and a product’s lifecycle.

At its best, this accounting methodology is misleading and doesn’t provide the aluminium industry with the much-needed motivation to invest in low-carbon solutions. At its worst, it incentivizes industries that pollute and drives industrial inefficiencies.

Establishing the right standards

That is why Hydro is working to establish transparent and correct standards for calculating the carbon footprint of recycled aluminium.

Transparency around recycled content and how to measure the carbon footprint is necessary to avoid greenwashing and drive a real circular, low-carbon economy. The upcoming EU Commission proposals on a Sustainable Product Policy should take this into account. Full transparency should be required when calculating and disclosing the carbon footprint of recycled materials.

Position paper: Carbon footprint of recycled aluminium

In this position paper, Hydro’s position on the carbon footprint of recycled aluminium is explained.

More information about recycling of aluminium

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