Aluminium is a ubiquitous material not only in nature but also in society. It’s characteristics of being lightweight, durable, impermeable and strong for its weight, have meant that its applications are widespread and diverse. We interact with it every day because of those widespread uses – laptop cases, household appliances, cars, bikes, airplanes, kitchen materials, packaging – the list goes on and on.
For most of these items, we don’t really get to choose whether we want to ‘consume’ aluminium or not but when it comes to food, beverage, and other packaging, we can flex our purchasing power to choose aluminium. And when it comes to a choice between plastic, glass or aluminium packaging, there are very good reasons to choose the “green metal”, as aluminium is often described.
From an environment perspective, by far the most attractive characteristic of aluminium is its recyclability - is infinitely recyclable with no degradation of quality. It is estimated that 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in use today. This sets it apart from plastic which can really only be recycled two or three times before there is a loss in quality.
In terms of environmental impact, recycled aluminium trumps not just plastic but glass (recycled or not) as a packaging material. This is mainly because aluminium’s low weight and durability mean it is easier to transport, no additional packaging materials are needed and the risk of breakages is eliminated, reducing stock loss.
Also, the infrastructure for recycling aluminium is so well established - 94% of Australian households have access to aluminium recycling. Unfortunately only around 55% of aluminium cans are currently recycled; the rest are headed to landfill.
Recycling aluminium is critical though, because the manufacture of virgin aluminium from mined bauxite ore is very resource intensive and not light on the environment. Also, current estimates are that there are only 400 years left of aluminium reserves. In landfill, it takes hundreds and hundreds of years to degrade and if the aluminium in landfill is incinerated, it creates toxic pollution. When aluminium is recycled it takes the pressure off the front end of the process and puts it on the back end, which has far less environmental impact.
Compared with virgin aluminium, recycling aluminium requires 95% less energy, substantially reduces emissions, and requires no virgin materials to be mined or transported. Even next to recycling glass, recycling aluminium takes less energy. And it has a short recycling cycle – it can go from first manufacture, to being recycled and back on the shelf within 90 days.
In Australia the recycled content of aluminium cans is around 62%. It should be noted, however, that when virgin aluminium and virgin glass are compared, glass comes out on top due to the energy and resources used in the manufacture of aluminium.
The critical thing is to raise the recycling rate – in Brazil for example, the reported rate of aluminium recycling is 98%. If we could reach that kind of rate in Australia, and if we could see the replacement of single use plastics products (and maybe virgin glass products) with aluminium packaging, this would have a big impact.
Obviously, the priority should be avoiding single use packaging and instead focusing on increasing the use and availability of reusable items (like bottles, containers etc) but as long as single use packaging is out there, recycled aluminium is the better choice – just make sure you recycle it.
Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.