Rethinking sustainability

It is a pity that the most abundant metal in the earth's crust, which is also one of the most useful to mankind, is so difficult to render into a useable form. The chemical properties of aluminium make it appear only in combination with other elements, forming compounds such as aluminium sulphate and aluminium oxide.

Although scientists first extracted and identified the metal in 1825, it was not until 1888 that commercially viable processes were developed to obtain aluminium oxide from bauxite ore and extract the pure metal from aluminium oxide. The latter process, based on electrolysis, is still in use today, and its environmental impact in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions are an area of focus for leaders of the industry.

Which makes it all the more notable that the leading producer in the world, New York and Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, has won numerous awards, including the World Best Carbon Markets Heavy Industries Pioneer – 2011, for its ground-breaking work on sustainability.  

“Sustainability is in our DNA,” says Kevin Anton, VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Alcoa. “Just a few months ago the company created my position reporting to the Chairman and CEO with a mandate to further drive sustainability into everything we do, from working with suppliers, to continued improvements in our production processes, and helping to educate customers, partners and the public understand the environmental benefits of using aluminium solutions from Alcoa.”

First of all, the bad news. There is no question that the production of aluminium disrupts the landscape where bauxite ore is mined, consumes large amounts of electricity and produces waste. But each of these aspects of the production process is the subject of constant research and efforts to reduce or eliminate its impact – efforts which Alcoa is leading. However, based on the full lifecycle of Alcoa aluminium products, the benefits already outweigh the impacts.

At the beginning of the ore to metal transformation is the extraction of bauxite, which is generally done in open cast mines that have the potential to disrupt local ecosystems and the way of life of native people. Alcoa's most recent mining project was opened in the Juruti region at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon region in 2009. This region is known to have one of the single largest high-quality bauxite deposits in the world, but it is also to some of the most endangered habitats and the 35,000 strong Juruti Velho people.

The new mine is being cited as an example of how sensitively handled mining developments can benefit the local region as well as the mine owners. Following extensive consultations with the local community, Alcoa identified and implemented 20 environmental and 15 social and economic initiatives to fulfil its licensing requirement. Furthermore, under its own sustainability agenda, the company is investing extensively in additional community initiatives relating to health and education, as well as environmental programmes focused on minimising the removal of vegetation, preserving vital genetic material and seeds, and relocating threatened animals to preserved areas.

Since the century-old electrolytic process is still the only commercially proven method of producing aluminium, the production process remains a heavy user of electric energy. The industry is sensitive to this and has pursued opportunities to reduce its use of electricity. In the last 50 years, the average amount of electricity needed to make a pound of aluminium has been reduced from around 10 kWh to seven. In addition to using renewable hydroelectric power where possible, Alcoa has made a further commitment to achieve an additional 10 percent reduction in the energy intensity of its primary operations from a 2005 baseline by 2020.

A similar commitment has been made with respect to reducing byproducts of the production process. Alcoa has reduced GHG emissions 43 percent from a base year 1990 while more than doubling production – an impressive feat.  New environmental targets set by the company in 2010 take that achievement even further and call for a 20 percent reduction in total (direct and indirect) CO2 equivalent intensity from a 2005 baseline by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030.

These goals are just one part of Alcoa's sustainability agenda, according to Anton. “We look at three distinct areas,” he says. “The first, of course, is the area of production – how do we produce aluminium in an environmentally friendly way. The second is the use of our product and how it can enhance the environmental performance of the products it goes into – such as making cars and trucks and airplanes more fuel efficient and therefore generating fewer emissions. The third is how we promote environmental awareness and protection… we view that as part of our role to help others in their journey toward a more sustainable world.”

It is the second area where Anton and his team believe even better improvements to the global carbon footprint can be made, and with good reason. Given its attributes of light weight, strength, malleability, superconductivity and non-corrosiveness, aluminium is the metal of choice for uses ranging from cooking and canning to space travel. Demand for the metal is growing fast, as aluminium is used to replace other materials in product design, and developing economies like China and India increase their consumption.

In 1900, annual output of aluminium was 1,000 tonnes; by the turn of the next century, production had reached 32m tonnes. Demand grew by around eight percent per annum from 2002 until the recession hit in 2008, when world aluminium production declined for the first time in fifteen years. Fuelled by growth in China, production has started to grow again, and in its report The Economics of Aluminium, 2009, Roskill Information Services Ltd forecast a total demand of about 58m tonnes by the end 2013.

“What many people fail to realise is how the use of aluminium in the place of alternative materials can enhance the carbon footprint of the product it goes in to,” Anton points out. “Obviously it is more relevant to the sustainability of our planet to look at the environmental impact of any item over its entire life cycle.”
One of the clearest examples of his argument is aluminium in the transport industry.  

In 2006, aluminium overtook iron to become the second most used material in new cars and trucks worldwide. Alcoa works closely with automakers to include aluminium in new car designs in ways that will improve fuel economy, reduce emissions and enhance vehicle performance. According to the International Aluminium Institute, a kilogram of aluminium used as a substitute for heavier metals in the car industry reduces petrol consumption by 8.5 litres and emits 20 kg less CO2. A 10 percent reduction in car weight results in a nine percent increase of fuel consumption efficiency. Essentially, aluminium provides three times the fuel economy benefit of high strength steel.

The same principle is being applied to a wide range of products in general use. Aluminium laptop computers are lighter, and do not need to rely on a fan because of the metal's thermal properties – making them more energy efficient. At the worlds' largest light metal research centre, Alcoa scientists are constantly working to exploit the unique properties of aluminium to enhance the energy performance of products in transportation, packaging, construction, lighting, electrics, electronics and surface coatings.

Of course, all of these products will eventually wear out and be discarded, spelling the end of their life cycle – but not of the aluminium content within them. Unlike most other constituent materials, aluminium is 100 percent recyclable without any loss of its natural qualities, and can be recycled an infinite number of times: that's good news for the planet. And the recycling process uses a mere five percent of the energy used to produce aluminium from ore, so part of the Alcoa sustainability agenda is about encouraging as much recycling as possible to meet the growing demand for aluminium with this more energy efficient material.

“Aluminium is the most commonly recycled post-consumer metal in the world,” explains Anton. “Seventy-five percent of all the aluminium ever produced since 1888 is still in use today.”

With little financial incentive to recycle, consumers needed to be made aware of the environmental benefits of returning their beverage cans for reprocessing. Two years ago, Alcoa launched an initiative that gained the support of the entire industry to lift beverage can recycling rates in the US from 52 to 75 percent by the year 2015. Today that rate is 58 percent and growing. Europeans currently recycle just over 70 percent.

Sustainability is defined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development as “ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, for now and for generations to come.” As the benefits outweigh the costs of aluminium, it forces us to rethink how we define sustainability in a complex world. For the sustainability team at Alcoa, the concept of lifecycle is an important part of judging aluminium, but they are not content to rest in their focus on constantly improving all aspects of their business process. Their commitment includes embedding sustainability goals in the corporate incentive compensation scheme, to ensure that everyone is focused on best practices and achieving improved levels of performance.

It is this commitment that has given investors confidence in Alcoa's sustainability agenda – the company has now been listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for nine years.

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