Sustainability is the biggest challenge faced by the aluminium industry today. As a basic material, aluminium is intrinsically sustainable, because the basic properties of aluminium do not change during processing. It can be recycled repeatedly without any loss in quality and reused in manufacturing various products. However, the primary production process of aluminium is quite energy intensive and uses substantial amount of bauxite ore and critical raw materials which lead to huge waste generation.
Some producers are making big efforts to reduce the environmental impact and carbon footprint of their primary aluminium production process. The lightweighting and infinite recyclability of aluminium, which are key to its mass-market appeal, must be set against high greenhouse gas emissions and energy use in the production of primary aluminium. Bauxite, the precursor to aluminium, is also mined and processed in parts of the world where environmental standards and land rights are not necessarily enshrined in law.
But how can producers of this sustainable aluminium get the message through to international brands and consumers? Different strategies are emerging in the market place and it will be very interesting to see if they will all be equally successful.
Smelters using renewable electricity produce aluminium with a much lower carbon footprint than those using fossil fuel derived electricity. Now one of these producers, Rio Tinto, is trying to differentiate its own sustainable aluminium from conventional aluminium by launching new branding to connect with the public. Rio Tinto has launched RenewAl™ primary aluminium, with a much lower carbon footprint. A media release says ‘With one of the lightest carbon footprints per tonne, Rio Tinto’s Aluminium group already is well positioned to take advantage of the increasing demand from customers for cleaner, more sustainable products – all of which, by the way, attract a premium’.
Other companies have a different strategy. Some are focussing on a sector wide effort to improve the sustainability of aluminium production and processing under the auspices of the ASI (Aluminium Stewardship Initiative). The ASI Production Standard sets a bar for not only energy use, but also protection of people’s rights, preservation of biodiversity and the wider environment and waste reduction, amongst others. It follows the path established in the timber sector by FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), the first and one of the most successful sustainability schemes. However the ASI is not expected to launch its sustainability scheme for aluminium for a while, so there will be a wait until participants can make claims about using ASI compliant aluminium.
The publicity around using recycled aluminium is also increasing. Recycled aluminium has much lower greenhouse gas emissions, uses less energy for
production and it is associated with fewer risk factors in terms of land use and people’s rights. Recycled aluminium is getting its own recognisable brand identities. Novelis and Jaguar Landrover have created the REALCAR™ from largely recycled aluminium -RC 5754. Gulf Extrusions offers X-Eco with a high-recycled aluminium content.
Expect more of these new brands to be launched for both recycled and sustainable aluminium, because this is the way that other sectors have progressed.
Brand recognition of sustainable aluminium is a good start as it will drive demand and encourage improvements from other players. But is not enough on its own. Consumers will start asking questions about supply chains; they will want to be sure that the aluminium they are buying is what it claims to be. That is where traceability is important. Product manufacturers and international brands will need proof of their supply chains back to the smelter or the recycler, to back-up their claims.