Aluminum – a light metal with a massive impact
Aluminum is a ubiquitous material that promises ease and convenience. Yet mining its raw material, bauxite, and processing it into aluminum lays waste to vast areas of old-growth forest. The energy-intensive production of aluminum generally relies on powerful hydroelectric dams that often flood the land of indigenous communities. Red mud, a toxic waste product of aluminum refining, is a serious environmental hazard.
Five-minute info: aluminum
Definition: What is aluminum?
Aluminum is the third most common chemical element (symbol AL) and the most common metal in the earth’s crust, where it occurs in the form of oxides and aluminum silicates. The metal aluminum is refined from bauxite. The most important producing countries and their respective shares of worldwide production are Australia (29%), China (19%), Guinea (18%), Brazil (10%), India (7%), Jamaica (3%) and Indonesia (3%). In Europe, Greece is the only country to have significant bauxite deposits.
The silvery-white metal is particularly light and easy to shape. Aluminum alloys are very strong. The metal reacts with air and water and forms a thin layer of oxide that protects it against further corrosion.
What is aluminum used for?
In Germany, for example, the automotive industry is the biggest consumer, accounting for 47% of the aluminum used in 2019. Other uses of aluminum are construction (14%) and packaging (12%). Electrical engineering and mechanical engineering follow with 7% each, the iron and steel industry with 5%, while use in household goods, office equipment, furnishings and leisure products account for 8% (source: German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), Nov. 2020: Deutschland ‒ Rohstoffsituation 2019).
Conventional cars manufactured in Europe contain an average of 180 kg of the light metal. Considerably more aluminum is used for SUVs and luxury cars – in particular by Jaguar, Land Rover and Porsche – as well as in electric vehicles. The Audi E-Tron contains no less than 800 kg of aluminum (source: European Aluminium 2019: Aluminum Content in European Passenger Cars).
Many single-use products such as coffee pods, beverage cans and yoghurt lids are made of aluminum. Aluminum salts are also used in antiperspirants and medications and to regulate the consistency of creams.
Demand for aluminum has risen sharply in recent years, with devastating consequences.
What is the environmental impact of aluminum?
While aluminum is the most common metal in the earth’s crust, it occurs only in bound form. The mining, processing and refining of bauxite into raw aluminum is energy-intensive and has a major impact on the environment. By contrast, recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy required to extract raw aluminum from ore.
- Rainforest destruction for bauxite mining
A significant share of bauxite deposits can be found in the tropics. In order to get to the thin rock layer under the earth’s surface, huge areas of forest are cleared and soil removed in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Guinea. In Porto Trombetas, Brazil, an area the size of 250 football fields is cleared every year for bauxite mining.
- Toxic waste products
Aluminum is extracted from bauxite in a complex chemical process. Producing one ton of raw aluminum results in up to four tons of toxic waste, which has a distinctive red color due to the iron-rich compounds it contains. This so-called red mud is stored in huge, open tailing ponds. Leaks and dam breaks are a frequent occurrence, often burying whole villages under the highly corrosive sludge. Toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury transform living rivers into toxic dead zones. However, even without major accidents, environmental toxins are released into the air, soil and water: People living around mines and aluminum factories complain of contaminated drinking water, skin diseases, and fish die-offs.
- High energy consumption during refining
Producing one ton of aluminum requires 15 MWh of electricity – as much as a two-person household uses in five years. Because of its energy-intensive nature, aluminum production is only economically viable if a lot of very cheap electricity is available. Gigantic hydropower plants have been built in Brazil and elsewhere for this purpose, flooding the rainforest and the land of indigenous communities.
The negative effects of aluminum are not only felt in the producing countries, however. Aluminum in everyday products is a health hazard: Salts dissolved from aluminum foil, as well as the aluminum components in deodorants and medications, can accumulate in our bodies and are suspected of causing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
How can you address the problem?
Aluminum is everywhere in our day-to-day life. Production increased by almost 60% between 2009 and 2016 to 58.3 million metric tons per year – not least for everyday products. And it is here that great potential exists for savings.
- Think twice about packaging: Takeaway meals in aluminum trays, granola bars in multilayer wrappers – snack food is often packaged in aluminum. It only takes a bit of planning to prepare snacks for school or the office at home. You can reduce packaging waste dramatically by using sandwich boxes instead of aluminum foil and drinks in reusable bottles (with home-made iced tea, for example) instead of beverage cans.
- Avoid coffee pod waste: One kilogram of coffee in pods can cost up to EUR 80 (USD 95 or GBP 70), making it hard on your wallet as well as the environment. Up to three grams of packaging are needed for six to seven grams of coffee. French presses and stainless steel stovetop espresso makers are economical and environmentally friendly alternatives.
- Get the longest possible life out of aluminum products: Aluminum can be found in numerous household items such as computer cases, aluminum shelving and carpet strips. Investing in high-quality products and using them for as long as possible can reduce your aluminum footprint.
- Recycle aluminum: It’s not always possible to avoid aluminum packaging altogether. However, the raw materials in such packaging can, in theory, be reused indefinitely – provided we dispose of it with care to ensure that it is recycled.
- Hit the road without hundreds of kilos of aluminum: The up to 150 kilograms of aluminum that go into a new car are a pretty solid argument in favor of getting around by bicycle or using public transportation.
- Avoid aluminum to protect your health: Aluminum-free natural cosmetics and deodorants without aluminum salts (e.g. based on soda) are a healthy choice. Pharmacists can often recommend alternatives to medications containing aluminum such as antacids. Do not store acidic foods in aluminum foil under any circumstances: harmful aluminum salts could pass into the food.
Share and spread the word: Very few people are aware of the connection between coffee pods and rainforest destruction. Please share this information widely to help raise awareness of the dangers of aluminum. If demand for aluminum products falls, companies can be persuaded to rethink. Online petitions are an effective tool for change as well.