Questions and answers about aluminum

Coffee pods © Andrés Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA 2.0

What exactly are aluminum and bauxite?

Aluminum is the third most common chemical element in the earth’s crust, where it occurs in the form of oxides and aluminum silicates. The ore bauxite is the raw material for aluminum production.

The main areas of application for aluminum and its alloys are vehicle construction, the building sector, mechanical engineering and packaging.

Is rainforest being destroyed for aluminum?

Bauxite is generally extracted in open-pit mines. Of the bauxite reserves known today, a major share is located in the tropical belt, and rainforest is being cleared for mining in the producing countries of Guinea, Jamaica, India, Australia and Brazil. This often threatens the livelihoods of indigenous peoples – as in the case in the Niyamgiri Mountains in Orissa, India.

Brazil’s most important bauxite mine, Porto Trombetas, which supplies 70 percent of total Brazilian production, is located in the middle of otherwise pristine Amazon rainforest. The discharge of waste water into the nearby Lake Batata left the bottom of the lake covered with several meters of toxic silt, making it one of the greatest industrial disasters ever in Brazil. Today, 100 hectares of forest are cleared here every year for the mine, which has been in operation since 1979.  

Why is aluminum production hazardous?

Aluminum smelting is equally harmful to the environment due to its waste product, toxic red mud. Between one and six tons of the hazardous sludge are produced per ton of aluminum produced. Since few options exist for the further processing for red mud, the substance is stored in large reservoirs, or simply discharged into rivers with disastrous consequences for the affected ecosystems.

The gases – fluoride in particular – produced during the smelting process are harmful to plants, wildlife and people living near the smelters, causing respiratory diseases, bone damage (fluorosis), skin problems and many other health risks.

How does aluminum production impact the climate?

Aluminum smelting is extremely energy-intensive. Manufacturers therefore seek to move this production step to countries with low electricity costs. The power needed is generated mainly by hydropower or coal-fired power plants. The hydropower dams usually lead to further extensive destruction of the rainforest and habitats. Dams also contribute to climate change through the methane that forms in their reservoirs when plant debris decomposes underwater. As a result, electricity from the Brazilian Balbina power plant is more harmful to the climate than that of a comparable coal-fired plant. Other greenhouse gases such as fluorinated hydrocarbons (6,000 to 9,000 times more harmful to the climate than CO2) are released during smelting.

How is aluminum produced?

At eight percent, aluminum is the third most common element in the earth’s crust. It was first found in 1808. It was not until 1886, however, that the electrolysis process was invented, allowing the metal to be produced economically.

Bauxite, an ore which contains up to 60 percent aluminum, is the only economically significant raw material used in its production. In the Bayer process, the mined ore is heated with caustic soda in pressure vessels at 150 to 200°C. The aluminum is dissolved as sodium aluminate in an extraction process. The iron-rich residue, red mud, is filtered off. This caustic substance must be stored as toxic waste. The aluminum oxide is melted and reduced to metallic aluminum in an electrolysis process using large amounts of electrical power: The production of one million tons of aluminum oxide uses as much energy as half a million households in a year.

What is the environmental impact of red mud?

Red mud consists of fine particles, with iron compounds giving it its color, and the caustic soda used in production. It also contains numerous heavy metals, depending on the origin of the bauxite used.  

If the sludge is improperly stored – or, as in some countries, simply discharged into nearby rivers – the heavy metals and caustic soda have serious consequences. The fine particles silt up rivers and lakes, killing off aquatic plants and animals. Poorly sealed storage reservoirs pollute groundwater with heavy metals, creating a long-term health hazard for people living in the area.  

A serious accident involving red mud occurred in Hungary in October 2010: The dam of a storage reservoir burst, flooding the surroundings with around one million cubic meters of sludge. The wave of red mud hit several villages, killing ten, injuring 150, and destroying numerous homes. The mud flowed into the Danube via a tributary, causing serious harm to the plant and animal life of the affected waters.

What does Brazil’s Belo Monte dam have to do with my packed lunch?

The Belo Monte Dam in northern Brazil is a gigantic hydropower project on the Xingu River. The dam is creating a reservoir covering 600 square kilometers – about the size of Lake Constance. Between 20,000 to 40,000 people are facing displacement because of the dam. The livelihoods of 18 different ethnic groups living along and from the river could be destroyed. Uncontacted indigenous people living in the region are particularly threatened: The construction is causing a massive influx of outsiders, introducing diseases for which the indigenous people do not have antibodies. 

With an output of 11 gigawatts, Belo Monte is said to be the fourth largest power plant in the world in terms of generating capacity. Most of the power it generates is destined for Brazil’s energy-intensive export industry. The manufacturers of aluminum in the north of the country in particular will use the “inexpensive” and “climate-friendly” electricity from the hydropower plant. The impact of the aluminum foil wrapping your sandwiches can thus be felt deep in the Amazon rainforest. A sandwich box that can be reused many times is therefore a much better solution.  

What other everyday products contain aluminum?  

In addition to the obvious foil, aluminum is hidden in many other everyday products. It can be found in the packaging of chewing gum, chocolate bars, coffee, Tetra Paks, yoghurt lids, toothpaste tubes, deodorant and beverage cans and even the lids of glass bottles.  

It is therefore important to avoid packaging of this type wherever possible – and if it cannot be avoided, to put your waste in the appropriate bin, as aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. The production of “secondary” aluminum requires only five percent of the energy used for new production.  

However, it is difficult to recover the aluminum in composite packaging (coffee packaging or Tetra Paks) in the recycling process. Today, this waste is either used in cement production or incinerated.  

Aluminum is used in household goods such as cooking appliances because of the good thermal conductivity, and in house construction – in windows, for example. The material is also used in large quantities in airplanes, railroad cars, automobiles and power lines because of its low weight. In the electronics industry, aluminum is used increasingly as a substitute for copper. The rapid expansion of solar energy generation is also leading to increasing production due to the aluminum mounting systems.

How much aluminum do we actually use in industrialized countries?  

Because of its low density – there are only three lighter metals – aluminum is playing a growing role in industry today. The consumption of the metal continues to rise in industrialized countries. In terms of per capita consumption, Germany takes the top position here with 31.6 kg per person and year, followed by the United States (30 kg) and Japan (26.4 kg).

At 29 percent, the largest share of aluminum is used worldwide in the transportation sector, followed by construction (22 percent), packaging (15 percent) and electricity generation (12 percent), as well as mechanical engineering and durable consumer goods (9 percent each). 

Who is responsible for bauxite mining and aluminum production?

The main producing countries of bauxite are Australia (30 percent of total production in 2011), China (20.9 percent), Brazil (14 percent), Guinea (8 percent), India (9 percent) and Jamaica (5 percent). Other, less significant deposits can be found in the United States and Europe. Guinea is the country currently believed to have the largest reserves, at 7.4 billion tons (US Geological Survey 2012). The major aluminum companies are predominantly based in the industrialized countries. Together, they control nearly 50 percent of global production, led by RUSAL (Russia), followed by Alcoa (USA), Rio Tinto Alcan (Canada), Chalco (China) and Norsk Hydro (Norway). Source: Reuters

Is there such a thing as “clean” aluminum?

The cleanest is the aluminum that has not been produced in the first place. Every avoided item of packaging material reduces the damage to the environment. If consumption is unavoidable, it should be recycled through the appropriate disposal systems.  

There are also less harmful methods of aluminum production, such as those used in an aluminum plant near Hamburg, Germany. The aim there is to reduce energy consumption as much as possible. The red mud produced in the plant is cleaned of caustic soda, which is recycled. The remaining waste is then stored in a sealed reservoir. The environmental impact of the production is thus kept to a minimum.  

Problems such as environmental destruction in bauxite mining and the climate impact of transporting the ore to Germany remain unresolved, however.  

Isn’t aluminum an important source of foreign exchange and a driver of development for producing countries?  

In most cases, the projects initially create mountains of debt, for which money flows to the rich countries for years in the form of interest payments. Not only is the initial investment for the mines largely paid for by the state in order to attract foreign companies., the required hydroelectric power plants are also paid for by the state. In Brazil, the aluminum producers jointly negotiated contracts with the state-owned power company. Thus, they purchase electricity at less than the cost of generating it. Other benefits such as tax exemptions, duty-free import of inputs and income tax exemption for foreign employees are intended to attract corporations, according to the governments.  

For the population, on the other hand, the projects often cause major social and environmental problems while creating very few jobs. The example of the Turucuí dam shows that the population hardly benefits. Despite the hydropower plant, some communities in the vicinity are still not connected to the grid. The mined bauxite or produced aluminum is mainly intended for export.  

What can I do?

  • Avoid using aluminum foil wherever possible. Use sandwich boxes. 
  • When grilling, use stainless steel trays that can be reused and eliminate the need for aluminum foil. 
  • Reusable bottles are an alternative to beverages in cans.
  • Do not buy single-serving packages of jam, honey or coffee creamer. Product samples from the drugstore often come in aluminum-coated packaging. 
  • Buy condiments such as mustard in jars rather than tubes. 
  • Buy organic coffee – preferably from a small roaster – instead of using pods. This not only reduces aluminum consumption and protects the rainforest, it also saves you money. You may also be able to persuade your roaster to use non-aluminum packaging instead of composite packaging.
  • If you cannot avoid using aluminum products, make sure that the aluminum is disposed of properly in the recycling bin. 
  • When renovating your house, we recommend installing windows with wooden frames – from non-tropical woods, of course – instead of aluminum.
  • When buying deodorant, choose a product that does not contain aluminum. Also pay attention to the packaging.
  • Call on manufacturers who use aluminum packaging to switch to alternative materials. 
  • Support the work of Rainforest Rescue to protect forest from destruction for aluminum production.
  • Tell your family, friends and acquaintances about the impact of aluminum on the rainforest. 

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