Renewable Matter # I-01 / Urban Mines of Aluminium

The Circular Economy Race: Aluminium in Pole Position

by Antonio Cianciullo

Using recycled instead of virgin aluminium saves 95% of energy. Besides, it is a resistant and versatile material that can be recycled ad infinitum: 2 cans are enough to produce a pen, 70 a pot, 800 a bicycle.


In all sports there are natural talents, champions with innate abilities. In the circular economy race, aluminium features amongst the favourites at the starting grid, with all the right stuff for a great performance. It is an advantage stemming from a basic characteristic: the difference between the production costs of the virgin raw material and those of recycling.

Indeed, the problem with aluminium is not the availability of raw material, because in nature there is an abundance of the resource: bauxite, the main source of aluminium, is one of the most common elements. The critical issue is represented by the processing costs because the price to produce a kilo of aluminium is very high, especially in energy terms (13 kWh). However, using recycled instead of virgin material can guarantee 95% energy saving, thus avoiding 9 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of recycled material. For instance, in Italy, in 2014, thanks to the recycling of 47,100 tonnes of aluminium packaging, CO2 emissions were reduced by 402,000 tonnes, with an energy saving of 173,000 tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE). 

It is thus imperative that, for economic and environmental reasons, the recovery of aluminium be a priority. What’s more, with regard to reusing, aluminium proved particularly versatile: 2 cans are enough to produce a pen, 3 cans a pair of sunglasses, 37 cans a coffee maker, 70 a pot, 130 a push scooter, 640 a rim for vehicles and 800 a bicycle. 

These are all interesting and useful examples because they allow to grasp in an intuitive way the link between everyday actions (separate waste) and a benefit of our everyday life (drinking coffee using a coffee maker boasting lower costs with the same performance). This constant reference to ecology as a consumption and life style has been necessary to involve millions of people. But today a perception leap is necessary: there is a need for focussing on the overall dimension of the circular economy challenge, in order to make the necessary economic decisions to revamp a production modality which will act as a common ground where countries and economic blocks will put their competitive abilities to the test. 

From this perspective, aluminium is interesting for a number of reasons. Because it can be 100% recycled many times without losing its initial characteristics. Because Italy has a special interest in this recovery, in that it does not have any bauxite mines. Because of its lightness and resistance to corrosion, aluminium plays an increasingly important role in a sector with a high impact on the environment such as transport (if in the 50’s and 60’s a car contained an average of 40 kilos of aluminium, today that amount is almost double).

Aluminium can thus become a test to measure the scope of the circular economy relaunch, which is only just beginning. Although still a fledgling economy, the trends show the need for a quality leap. According to a study by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in 2010, 65 billion tonnes of materials have been extracted from nature and they will rise to 82 billion in 2020. Of the 2.7 billion tonnes of waste generated in Europe in 2010 only 40% was reused, recycled or composted. In total, according to UNEP, there was a loss of 52 billion for failing to recover copper, 34 billion for gold, 15 for aluminium and 7 for silver.

While, by developing the circular economy in the EU’s manufacturing sectors – following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s line of reasoning – there would be a saving of $380 billion during the transition and 520-630 in an advanced scenario: 3-3.9% of the EU’s GDP for 2010. In practical terms, thanks to the savings of raw materials alone, the circular economy can produce a global revenue of $700 billion.

Is it a realistic scenario or just a dream? The signs are moving in the direction of the circular economy both at present and in future market projections. Price volatility in the first decade of the 21st century was higher than the previous century. And by 2030, three billion members of the new global middle class will be present on the planet, double compared to the current numbers.

After all, the need for a turning point had been in the pipeline for a long time. Already at the start of the century, the State of the World 2004 revealed in advance this issue, not just by outlining the theoretical profile of the new production model, but making a list of successful innovations both from an economic and ecological point of view. The examples of recycling potential included the 32 billion cans disposed of in 2002 by US citizens as a mine large enough to build a commercial global airline fleet 1.5 times bigger than the current one.



Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2004: Special Focus: The Consumer Society (