Aluminum is a wonderful material; I am banging this post out on a Mac with a case that was hydroformed out of a block of a particular virgin aluminum alloy specified by Apple. Other alloys are used in cars, planes, bullet trains and even rockets.
But it turns out that one major supplier of aluminum, Kobe Steel, has been shipping substandard aluminum and faking the data about the strength and durability of their aluminum. According to Bloomberg, “the fabrication of figures was found at all four of Kobe Steel’s local aluminum plants in conduct that was systematic, and for some items the practice dated back some 10 years.” Some of it may have gone into airplanes made by Subaru, wings made for Boeing, and yes, a rocket for Japan’s space industry.
The company is, of course, apologetic.
“Causing this serious matter has brought overwhelming shame to the Company,” Kobe Steel said in its statement. “The Company deeply regrets this incident and sincerely apologizes for the enormous worry and trouble this incident has caused to its customers and other related parties.”
And why is this on TreeHugger? Because aluminum has a huge environmental impact. Sixty percent of it is recycled, but making that other forty percent takes a lot of electricity, 13,500 to 17,000 kWh per ton. More and more of it is going into cars like the Tesla and trucks like the Ford F-150 to make them lighter. No wonder Kobe was tempted to cheat; they can’t make enough of the stuff.
A lot of Aluminum is recycled, particularly beverage cans where 67 percent of it is recovered, but a lot of it is not; it is often bound to plastic in packaging (tetra packs, coffee pods and condiment packages); Heinz alone makes 11 billion little ketchup pouches every year. A lot more aluminum pans and packages get thrown out too, so the real recycling rate is going to be lower than that for the cans. There is just not enough recycled aluminum to meet demand, and recycled aluminum isn’t up to spec for rockets and MacBooks. So companies like Kobe keep making more virgin aluminum, and as Carl Zimring wrote in his book, Aluminum Upcycled, this causes increasing environmental damage.
As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation
We simply have to use less of the stuff; between the bauxite mining, the processing or the energy intensive refining, we can’t afford the cost. And with less demand, there is less incentive to cheat.