Aluminum, or aluminium as we call it in Australia, is an incredibly useful metal. While aluminum is by no means in short supply – it’s the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust – a resource-intensive process is required to make into a form we can use.
Compared to most other metals, aluminum is extremely difficult to extract from its ore, called bauxite. It takes around 4 to 5 tons of high grade bauxite ore to produce one ton of aluminum. That means a lot of digging and land degradation – and a lot of energy; and all the emissions associated with that activity.
Another major environmental issue in the production of aluminum is the emission of perfluorcarbons (PFCs), powerful greenhouse gases that remain *permanently* in the atmosphere once released.
The sludge waste product from some types of aluminum refining is also dangerous stuff. In early October 2010, the banks of a massive toxic sludge dam at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant in Ajka, Hungary, burst; sending around 35.3 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of highly corrosive waste into several towns.
The sludge, called red mud is also polluting waterways. In an aquatic environment and in large enough quantities, this sludge will kill everything.
Even when the sludge dries, it will still pose a risk, as the material consists of very fine particles, which can be whipped up by winds and cause problems for creatures breathing the dust in.
One of the saving graces of aluminum is that it can be recycled again and again. To reduce our collective impact of aluminum refining, we need to recycle every bit we can. Aluminum recycling energy savings are huge – around 95%.
We’re probably most familiar with aluminum recycling in relation to soda cans. I was surprised to learn that the U.S. aluminum can recycling rate had only reached 57.4% in 2009 according to figures from the Aluminum Association. There are still a lot of cans winding up in landfill or elsewhere.
Aluminum is used in so many other products too. For example, before throwing out pots and pans if you can’t give them away, check to see what they are made of as often they will be aluminum – this should be stamped on the pot somewhere. Your recycling depot may even give you some cash for them. By the way, stainless steel pots and pans can also be recycled.
“Tinfoil” or wrapping foil is aluminum and many products are also wrapped or placed in other forms of aluminum packaging, such as metal take-out trays. These you should be able to put in your recycling bin, but check with your local authorities to be sure.
Fittings around the home, auto accessories and parts – there’s just so many products made with aluminum; before you throw anything metallic out, try to find out what it’s made of.
The less our demand of new materials, the less land needs to be ripped up, fewer emissions and fewer environmental disasters such as the one occurring in Hungary will occur.