Aluminium is one of the most widely used metals on earth. For this reason alone, it’s important to consider how sustainable aluminium is.
Since it’s discovery in 1825, aluminium has been put to use in a variety of applications. From food and drink cans, to packaging, transport and aircraft parts, this metal has multiple uses.
The downside is that aluminium production is a complex process, which can have wide-ranging environmental impacts.
In this blog post, we will take a closer look at aluminium environmental impact, how it’s produced, if aluminium is recyclable and whether or not aluminium is sustainable taking all things into account.
Quick answer – Is aluminium sustainable?
Let’s get straight into for those looking for a quick answer – is aluminium sustainable?
Yes, all things considered aluminium is a sustainable metal. There is an environmental cost to mining aluminium but once it’s out of the ground and been made into a product, it’s continuously recyclable and reusable, making it sustainable in my view.
This is very similar to why we considered glass sustainable too.
How is aluminium made?
Aluminium is a versatile and popular material put to use around the world in a variety of products.
It’s clear though that aluminium production can have a significant environmental impact.
Aluminium is made via a two-step process:
- Bauxite ore is refined to create aluminium oxide (the Bayer process)
- Aluminium oxide is smelted to create pure aluminium (the Hall-Heroult process)
Is making aluminium bad for the environment?
Consider this first step, extracting aluminium from bauxite ore requires a great deal of energy.
More often than not, this comes from the burning of fossil fuels. As you know, using fossil fuels releases high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. This is similar to other common materials such as plastic and silicone. Take a closer look at the plastic vs silicone debate here.
In addition, aluminium production creates hazardous waste. This includes both toxic fumes causing air pollution and liquid waste that can contaminate water supplies. Aluminium smelters are also a major source of air pollution.
Once produced, aluminium products also pose environmental hazards. For instance, when aluminium gets deposited in landfill sites instead of being recycled, it can release harmful chemicals into the soil and ground water. This is because aluminium is reactive unlike the inert stainless steel that won’t react.
So, it’s fair to say that there are many aspects of aluminium that aren’t environmentally sustainable.
Can aluminium be recycled?
The good news for the sustainability minded is that, yes aluminium can be recycled.
After its initial use, aluminium is a sustainable metal that can be recycled over and over again without losing its quality. In fact, around 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in use today.
This is very similar to other metals, such as stainless steel. You can read more about stainless steel sustainability here.
Is it possible to swap out single use items in your kitchen like aluminium foil for more reusable items, such as beeswax wraps.
The environmental benefits to recycling aluminium
The recycling benefits of aluminium make it a very efficient metal to use. This is because we don’t have to keep extracting new material from the ground and making aluminium in factories.
Recycling aluminium also requires far less energy than creating new aluminium, so it’s much more environmentally friendly. It’s even possible for aluminium recycling and processing plants to be powered with renewable energy.
Recycling aluminium takes just 5% of the energy that is required to produce new aluminium from scratch. This saves an awful lot of energy and resource.
Not only that, but sustainable aluminium can also be used to create products that help reduce our carbon footprint, such as sustainable buildings and green transportation solutions.
Wrap up – is aluminium sustainable?
The answer is complicated and somewhat caveated.
Aluminium has a number of desirable and beneficial properties, but its production also has a significant environmental impact. We need to consider all stages of the lifecycle, from the production to use and then recycling or reuse.
The good news is that this metal can be continuously recycled and reused, which makes aluminium sustainable.
If we are to use aluminium in an even more sustainable way, we need to find ways to reduce the initial environmental impact aluminium during its mining and processing. This may involve using renewable energy to power aluminium production, or finding other ways to reduce emissions from smelters.
Whatever the solution, it’s clear that when considering all materials used as frequently as aluminium, such as plastic and silicone, then aluminium is a relatively sustainable choice.
Learn more about sustainable living…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.