Aluminium and Sustainability

raw aluminium ingot

While the world searches for increased fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, aluminium is playing an important role in achieving these goals. The metal is lightweight, exceptionally strong, and infinitely recyclable.

Aluminium is the metal of choice in many parts of the construction industry. It is used for roofs with the added benefit that it reflects up to 97% of sunlight, cladding on buildings, doors and windows, and many other applications and products.

Benefits of Aluminium

  • As it is lightweight it is easy to transport thus reducing the environmental impact of transportation
  • Aluminium is durable and in normal use does not rust. The metal forms a surface skin of aluminium oxide which protects it from corrosion. This means that it never needs painting and requires minimal maintenance
  • Aluminium can be anodised to provide a natural colour and to increase its resistance to corrosive and hostile environments
  • The carbon footprint associated with the life cycle of aluminium is 20% less than that of steel
  • It is malleable and can be formed into just about any shape. Doing so is energy efficient and provides many design possibilities
  • Aluminium has a huge life span and is infinitely recyclable. An example is the old Wembley Stadium: 96% of the aluminium that had been used in its construction was reclaimed and recycled
  • Increasing efficiencies in the aluminium industry is further driving down its cost and environmental impact
  • Aluminium is an abundant element composing 8% of the earth’s crust. That is enough to sustain 400 years of aluminium usage without recycling. Given how easily aluminium can be recycled, we are never likely to run out of it
  • Mining aluminium has a low environmental impact - most (up to 83%) of aluminium mining operations are restored to their original state
  • Over half of global aluminium production is powered using renewable energy sources, mainly hydroelectric

Recycled Aluminium

Very little aluminium is consumed during the lifetime of aluminium products. It is used for as long as the product is needed and then is available for recycling. Frequently this is referred to as a cradle-to-cradle life cycle.

Unlike many other materials, recycled aluminium is not degraded by the recycling process. It shares all the properties of the original aluminium including its strength, malleability, and corrosion resistance. It also shares the property of being able to be recycled, meaning that it can be recycled time and time again.

The recycling process is highly efficient and takes just 5% of the energy used in mining and refining new aluminium from bauxite ore.

The reduction in carbon footprint achieved by recycling aluminium equates to a reduction of 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 100,000 GWh of electricity, This is over twice as much energy as was obtained from all renewable sources in the UK during 2013.

Of all the aluminium that has ever been mined and refined globally, which is over a billion tonnes, 75% of it is in use today. Much of that 75% has been recycled several times over. However, as we use ever increasing quantities of aluminium in the construction and other industries there remains a demand for the newly mined and refined (primary) metal. Globally aluminium production uses around 65% primary and 35% recycled aluminium.

Sustainable building materials

While the built environment isn't the only element in the global climate challenges we must face, it is a significant and important factor. In the UK the construction and maintenance of buildings accounts for around half of total carbon dioxide emissions.

The greater use we make of aluminium in the construction industry, the more we are able to minimise our carbon footprint. Aluminium is one of the most sustainable building materials in the world.