Working in the world of resources, we may think we live in a material world, but dig a little deeper and you quickly hit upon energy, a scarce and costly commodity in the current climate. Of course all materials or products contain embedded energy, and, in many instances, it is the amount and/or type of that energy that goes a long way to determine the ‘climate friendliness’ of the material or product and what happens when its recycled. Aluminium of course has long been established as an energy efficient material once recycled, offering a 95% energy saving in comparison to purely virgin produced aluminium. But of course the story is more complex.
Primary aluminium is an energy intensive process with electrolysis needed to convert alumina into aluminium metal and without full circularity or a 100% recycling rate, some primary material is a necessary part of some products and services. However, at a time of unprecedented energy prices in the UK and mainland Europe, it is estimated that 50% or 1.1 million tonnes of European primary aluminium production capacity will be shut down by the end of the year. Due to global supply chains, these losses will be rapidly replaced by increased production from outside Europe, principally China, which has an average carbon footprint almost three times higher than in Europe.
Natural gas availability and affordability is equally critical for aluminium, as aluminium recycling (the remelting of aluminium scrap) is currently the only way to produce secondary raw materials that deliver the 95% energy saving compared to primary aluminium production and plays an essential role in reducing our energy and material dependency on third countries.
Whilst it is difficult to see what individuals or indeed the recycling industry can do to impact these large geopolitical storms surrounding us, it is perhaps disarmingly simple: Focus on quantity and quality of recycling. For many these two actions may seem contradictory but only by mastering both will the full benefits available to all of us be realized.
Quality of recyclate is a key determinant of efficiency of processes, so the cleaner the material – the more efficient the process meaning that less energy is wasted in removing unwanted contamination. This doesn’t just hold true for the end reprocessor but can be seen in the pre-sorting processes undertaken by MRFs. Aluminium is also an infinitely recyclable material, meaning that through good quality recycling systems it can be recycled, remade, refilled and back on the shelf in as little as sixty days. Do that on a consistent basis and in one year, that one aluminium can could be recycled six times, saving enough energy to make 160 new aluminium cans. So by focussing on the basics of quality recycling we can all contribute in a small way to saving energy and increasing circularity during these challenging times.
Novelis is once again proud to sponsor the annual LARAC Conference and Celebration Awards, so we would be delighted to meet you on our exhibition stand to discuss anything aluminium!