The endless power of aluminum recycling

| December 19, 2013

The bad news: it takes a whole lot of energy to create new aluminum products.

The good news: aluminum recycling is incredibly efficient.

That’s why experts say we’re moving toward making recycling the default way to produce aluminum products.

alumnum recycling

Luckily for the soda-consuming society that we are, aluminum is very easy to recycle. From Mojave Desert.

Describing aluminum as “the metal that just keeps on giving,” Laurence Knight and Tim Bowler of the BBC recently reported on why aluminum is so much more conducive to recycling than mining and extracting.

Aluminum doesn’t pop out of the ground looking like the soda cans we know and love. Aluminum comes from bauxite, “a reddish-brown ore named after the French town Les Baux, where it was first discovered,” report Knight and Bowler.

Availability isn’t the issue. Bauxite is abundant. However, it’s not so easy to extract bauxite from the ground.

Apparently, “you have to melt the bauxite in another mineral called cryolite, and then pass an electric current through it, separating the oxygen atoms from the aluminum.”

That’s a very fancy way of saying that it’s a “highly energy-intensive” and “expensive” process.

aluminum recycling

A bauxite mine in Brazil. From Norsk Hydro ASA.

Once you get the aluminum out of the ground, however, it’s a whole different ball game.

Aluminum is “one of the few materials that is genuinely 100% recyclable,” Nick Madden, raw material buyer for the world’s biggest manufacturer of rolled aluminum sheets told the BBC.

Better yet, recycling aluminum requires a miniscule fraction of the energy of extracting and processing new products — 95 percent less, according to a report on Treehugger.

Plus, aluminum is incredibly durable. It doesn’t degrade like other materials, and it can theoretically be recycled over and over again. That means that if we generate enough aluminum initially, we can stop extracting it and just keep reusing the aluminum we already have.

“Someday we might get 100 percent of our aluminum from recycling (using only 5 percent of the energy)” says Michael Graham Richard of Treehugger.

Demand for aluminum shows no sign of hitting a plateau due to increased usage from automakers and other manufacturers who have turned to aluminum as a lighter, more efficient alternative to steel.

That could mean that we’re not quite ready to shut down extraction efforts and rely solely on aluminum. It definitely means that we need to get serious about making sure that the aluminum currently in circulation ends up in recycling bins. After all, every aluminum can that ends up in a landfill is a missed opportunity for energy-efficient recycling.

Category: Metal, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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