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Scrap ready for recycling
Scrap ready for recycling. (Photo: Halvor Molland/Hydro)

Do you know enough about recycling to avoid greenwashing?

By Interview with Hans Erik Vatne, Chief Technology Officer, Hydro
May 06, 2020

The fantastic thing about aluminium is that it can be recycled over and over again, but do you know the difference between recycling from pre-consumer and post-consumer scrap? Meet our Chief Technology Officer Hans Erik Vatne, who can teach us what to look for when discussing the sustainability of recycled products.

In order to ensure the transition to a circular economy, we need to create high-quality products that can be recycled at the end of their lifetime. Most of us know the concept of recycling – to put something back into the life cycle. However, there are a few things you should know about recycling in order to ask the right questions to producers promoting a product as sustainable through recycling.

The important difference between pre-consumer and post-consumer scrap

When you make aluminium from recycled metal, you only use 5% of the energy used when producing the raw aluminium in the first place. This is why we like to encourage old products to be recycled and turned into new ones.

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First, it is important to understand whether a product is made with what we call post-consumer or pre-consumer recycled aluminium. In Hydro, we consider recycled post-consumer scrap the real recycling, as it gives the full benefits of saving C02 emissions. Hans Erik explains why.

“True recycling is really when a product has done its mission, it has been scrapped, collected and remelted and then reused for a new product,” says Hans Erik.  

“It is a bit like food waste. We should do everything we can to avoid food waste through buying smarter and eating what we need and cooking with less waste. The food we cannot use should then be sent off to be composted, used as biofuel or animal food. However, we should aim to reduce the waste in the first place, as it is not sustainable to produce beef and corn to create biofuel.“

It is the same with aluminium, he explains.

“Pre-consumer scrap is process scrap, or waste from production. When we produce products, there are often left-over or scrap material. This is aluminium that never ended up as a product. It is important to reuse this scrap as well, but whether you are a textile company or an aluminium producer, you should set up your manufacturing to produce as little waste as possible,” says Hans Erik.

This is why we say that it is great to make use of production waste, but you cannot claim that it is a greener material with a reduced CO2 footprint. The only CO2 reduction comes when the material from an existing product is reused as a material to make a new product instead of using primary aluminium. Then you have continued the loop instead of adding new material to the loop.

So when someone says that their product is made out of recycled materials, be sure to know to ask the right questions.

Why don’t we recycle more?

Recycled products are the goal, but it does require some work to ensure that we can create quality products out of used remelted aluminium.

What is unique about aluminium is that when melting and casting a new product, it has the same properties and quality as new aluminium. But to get there, the right competence, technology and high-quality scrap is needed.

“The challenge when recycling aluminium is that we have a very large range of different alloys, and when remelting we need to separate different alloys in order to obtain the right quality,” he says.

How consumers and government can contribute to increased recycling

Hans Erik says the efforts by industry and consumers are very important to be able to increase the amount of recycled aluminium in production.

“This depends on how well consumers are at sorting products at their end of life, sorting after demolition and work done by scrap collectors and dealers, in addition to the sorting of post-consumer scrap we do ourselves with advanced sorting technology.”

The sorting of scrap is what makes it more difficult and sometimes more costly to produce aluminium from post-consumer scrap.

“That means we are depending upon either the customer being willing to pay a premium for a recycled product with a lower footprint, or we need to get a discount on the post-consumer scrap to make this production profitable. Another option is of course the government subsidizing or somehow incentivizing a product with a lower CO2 footprint,” he adds.

The real recycling revolution happens with post-consumer scrap

It is not necessarily that easy to get high-quality post-consumer scrap, but Hans Erik and his team in Hydro keep pushing for new and better solutions.

“I’d say it is a battle for the best scrap, really. When you see the increasing demand for aluminium in the world, about 30% of the world demand can be covered using post-consumer scrap. We don’t have access to more scrap than that. That is why we need primary metal as well,” he says.

“We will always have process scrap too, but that is under control and with known chemistry. I don’t think we should get any credit for reusing it – most important is that we can make it easier to reuse the aluminium that has already lived its life as a product. That is where the real recycling revolution happens. This is the recycled aluminium you should be asking for.”

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