Is Using Recycled Aluminum Sustainable and Green? A New Book Raises Questions

©. Aluminum upcycled cover

What’s not to love about recycling? it makes people feel good, it keeps waste out of landfill, it is a virtuous cycle. Aluminum recycling is a particularly feel-good success story, with sixty percent of the aluminum produced coming from recycled sources. And recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less electricity than virgin aluminum. What could possibly be wrong with this picture?

Lots, it turns out, according to Carl A. Zimrig in his new book Aluminum Upcycled: sustainable design in historical perspective. He’s an associate professor of sustainability studies at Pratt Institute, and has written a real eye-opener. He makes a provocative case that it is just not good enough. It is a case that we have made before on TreeHugger: that recycling just isn't good enough, we still have to reduce consumption.

TVA poster

Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board/ edited for over the top racism/Public DomainAluminum is wonderful stuff, but it takes a lot of electricity to make it, (13,500 to 17,000 kWh per ton) to break the bond between oxygen and aluminum in aluminum oxide. Prior to World War II there was a massive government program to build dams for hydroelectric power, less for the benefit of the American people and more for the needs of aluminum refining for the inevitable war effort. After the war, there was more aluminum production capacity and electrical power than anyone knew what to do with, so the aluminum companies got to work imagining things that could be made from aluminum, from folding lawn chairs to aluminum siding.

tv dinner

Swanson TV Dinner/Promo image

But the stroke of genius was the disposable aluminum container that became the bottom of TV dinners and frozen food. An Alcoa exec is quoted: “the day was at hand when packages would replace pots and pans in the preparation of meals.” And then, the biggest score of them all, the aluminum beer and pop can, which like the disposable bottle, was not recycled but thrown out the car window.


I want to be recycled/Screen capture

Now we are on familiar TreeHugger ground: the invention of the litterbug, the Keep America Beautiful campaign that turned single-use packaging into litter that the user was responsible for picking up, the municipality responsible for taking to the quickly filling dumps, then the rise of recycling as it became clear that stuff had to be diverted from the dumps.

Aluminum is relatively easy to recycle and reuse, but it is not as clean and easy as people think. There are alloys that have to be removed using chemicals like chlorine; there are fumes and chemical releases that are toxic. “although the contaminants released by recycling pale compared to the ecological damage of mining and smelting primary aluminum, the waste products of scrap recycling must be considered when considering the consequences of returning the metal to production.”

But hey, it’s recyclable and more importantly, it is recycled. that’s why the USGBC, Bill McDonough and others consider recycled aluminum to be sustainable and green. That’s why Apple claims that its computers are greener, because they are solid aluminum.

Primary production

© Primary Production

But there is a problem- the market for aluminum keeps growing. Ford is now making its most popular truck out of it, and other car manufacturers are going this route to lighten their vehicles and improve mileage. The Tesla Model S is solid aluminum. There is simply not enough recycled aluminum to meet demand, and companies like Apple still need the virgin stuff where they can control the properties of the alloy more precisely.

palindromo meszaros the line hungary sludge spill

© Palíndromo Mészáros

Making virgin aluminum is hugely destructive, starting with the mining of bauxite, “an open pit process that leads to deforestation and leaved behind toxic “red mud” lakes that can overflow and pollute local ground water” (see what happened to this Hungarian town a few years ago). The bauxite is then shipped to where the electricity is, in Iceland, Quebec, Oregon or more likely these days, China.

More aluminum is going into long-lasting products like cars and furniture, which means less available for recycling. More is going into disposables where it is blended with plastics, like ketchup pouches, coffee pods and Tetra-Paks, where recycling is too expensive and is done mostly for show. Zimring concludes:

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.
Tesla Aluminum frame

© Tesla Aluminum body

In the end, buying stuff made with recycled aluminum creates the demand for more virgin aluminum and more environmental destruction. Zimring concludes with another TreeHugger-like zinger:

The most sustainable automobile design of the twenty-first century is not the F150 aluminum pickup,... the electric Tesla, the most sustainable automotive design is not an automobile at all, but a system to distribute transportation services-

-car sharing, bicycle sharing, product service systems, simply owning less stuff and sharing more so that overall demand for new stuff declines. Because even such intense and virtuous recycling that we do with aluminum, even if we catch every single can and aluminum foil container, it’s not enough. We still have to use less of the stuff if we are going to stop the environmental destruction and pollution that making virgin aluminum causes.

And as for the architects who think specifying recycled aluminum is green: it’s not.

A wonderful, eye-opening read, available from Johns Hopkins University Press. To this TreeHugger, the book is something of a vindication; I have been complaining about our broken recycling system, about the Keep America Beautiful campaigns, and about the evils of aluminum cans for years (see related links below) No wonder I loved the book. But it is a controversial issue, even among TreeHuggers; Mike has made the case for aluminum.