Recycling from the start

Aluminium’s intrinsic material value means that it has always been worthwhile returning the material to the loop that comprises metal extraction, processing, use and recovery. There is no deterioration in quality when aluminium is recycled. New profiles or other high-value products can be made from scrap profiles and new rolled products can be made from used aluminium sheet and foil. The amount of recycled aluminium in circulation is growing continuously.

Closed loops for optimal environmental performance

The circular economy begins with closed internal recycled-waste streams. There is therefore almost complete recycling of the scrap that arises from the processing of aluminium, which is returned to the production process.

The circular economy begins with closed internal recycled-waste streams. There is therefore almost complete recycling of the scrap that arises from the processing of aluminium, which is returned to the production process. Even the aluminium in the dross that results from recycling is recovered. In addition, operating and auxiliary materials, such as the core sand needed in sand casting processes to make the moulds used for casting engine blocks and cylinder heads, the lubricants used to roll semi-fabricated products, the solvent residues from foil-lacquering processes or the caustic soda used in the production of alumina, are returned to the material loop. Another example are the salts that are used in the recycling process to tie up any contamination adhering to the scrap; they are also recovered. This minimises any interference in the ecosystem and demands made on waste disposal sites, and conserves resources.

Recycling – an ecological success

A closed material loop is an important factor when it comes to the efficient utilisation of energy. The energy needed to recycle aluminium is up to 95 per cent less than that needed for primary production. Every time aluminium is reused, it improves the life-cycle assessment of the material. Therefore a well-functioning aluminium recycling industry has always ensured that aluminium is recovered.

Recycling rates in Germany and the EU

The German aluminium recycling industry is one of the frontrunners in Europe, with about 700,000 tonnes a year. In Germany, the production of aluminium from end-of-life products has long since overtaken primary aluminium production. The recycling rate is over 90 per cent in the transport sector, over 85 per cent in the building and construction sector and a total of 72 per cent in the packaging industry!

Aluminium – material for generations

An important benefit of aluminium is that it normally has a very long utilisation period. It is not unusual to find components still intact today after being in use for 90-100 years. Thanks to the durability of aluminium products, the utilisation period is often dictated by the life of the building, vehicle or product that contains the aluminium part. At the end of the utilisation phase, aluminium is a valuable starting material for further applications. And it does this using only a fraction of the energy originally needed. This means that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the aluminium from grandma’s milk churn is being used today in the engine block of her grandson’s car. And the grandson is unknowingly using aluminium that his own grandson will also use one day. This is because aluminium is not consumed but used. It provides benefits for generations. Recycling rates make an important contribution here.

Growth of the utilisation units in 500 years

A significant benefit of aluminium is its normally very long utilisation period. It is not unusual to find components still intact today after being in use for 90-100 years.

Aluminium in building and construction

Photo credit left: Flickr. Hastur Harbrough. Mont-Cenis-IMG_8454. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /Photo credit right: Flickr. Michele Payne. All rights reserved.
Akademie Mont-Cenis in the Mont-Cenis park in Herne.

Aluminium is also a feature of the world’s largest façade-integrated solar power plant at the Mont-Cenis energy park in Herne, Germany. Almost 3,200 solar modules with a total surface area of 10,000 square metres are embedded in a huge building, 180 metres long and 72 metres wide, with a characteristic transparent glass shell. Two hundred tonnes of aluminium were used in the building – mainly for profile systems to provide support for the glass and photovoltaic elements.