Aluminium is the third most abundant element in the earth’s crust after oxygen and silicon and is the most abundant metal. It has the chemical symbol Al. Australia is the largest producer of aluminium ore, largely from its northern coast and is one of the largest smelters of the ore (Bauxite or alumina). That process uses about 10% of Australia’s electricity supply. Recycling aluminium uses about 5% of that same energy to produce an equivalent amount of clean aluminium metal.
The world mines and produces about 50 MT of fresh aluminium annually or 50 thousand billion grams of the stuff. There are a variety of environmental issues from both mining and production of the metal.
So what do we use it for? A large building like the Burj Khalifa contains about 2000 tonnes of aluminium or 2 billion grams, while a large airplane might contain about 400 tonnes or 400 million grams. The aluminium in buildings and planes is largely expected to be recycled unless the building’s aluminium cladding burns or the plane is lost.
A Tesla model S has about 200 kg or 200 thousand grams of aluminium in its body and if we were to replace all of the world’s cars with Tesla model S versions that would require 200 MT of aluminium, or 4 year’s worth of total world production. The latest model 3 apparently uses less aluminium, but the exact makeup appears to be a closely guarded secret at the moment. Most aluminium cars could expect to be recycled, unless they are burnt in a lithium battery fire, in which case they would be vaporised.
A coke can weighs about 15 gram and the world produces about 200 million aluminium cans per year of many varieties for a total of 3 billion grams. About half of these are recycled each year leaving about 1.5 million kilos lost in landfill or worse.
A roll of alfoil weighs about 2 kilos, with each of us using on average 4 kilos per year or 4 000 grams. If you get through a lot of potato chips or chocolate bars you may use more. Chip packets are generally made of metalized polypropylene, or thin layers of plastic and aluminium combined. These are not recycled in your household rubbish but can be via REDcycle at your local Coles store. Again probably less than half of this foil is recycled.
Aluminium coffee pods contain 1 gram of aluminium and at one per day would be a consumption of 365 grams of aluminium per year or 36 kilos in a lifetime. These can be 100% recycled if taken back to the pod recycler (eg Nespresso) , but are tossed into landfill if thrown into your own recycle bin in Australia.
Aluminium is a great material for a lot of our container requirements, but only if recycled. It probably beats everything else for environmental sustainability, including biodegradable plastics, corn starch cups and paper products. Aluminium coffee pods are the least of our environmental worries.
While the oxide of aluminium has been known as alumina and aluminium potassium sulphate as alum for many centuries, it was only in 1827 that pure aluminium was first isolated. It does not occur naturally in its elemental state, unlike gold and silver for example. When first isolated it was much more valuable than either of those two.
Some liked the name aluminum for the new metal, but the Chemistry society decided on aluminium to match similar chemical elemental names (eg, sodium, magnesium, strontium etc). It is just the American general population and media that stuck with aluminum.