It matters where end-of-life aluminium ends up

Everyone agrees that recycling aluminium alloys is worthwhile and necessary.  Not only because it saves the huge energy expenditure necessary to produce new, primary metal, but also because aluminium can be recycled again and again without loss of quality.  So recent news that Hydro’s CIRCAL recycled aluminium is in high demand for low-carbon construction projects is very positive. Also, recycling of beverage cans reached new highs in Germany.

Yet these good news stories don’t show the whole picture.  Europe actually exports significant quantities of scrap aluminium, mainly to Asia, at the same time as importing carbon intensive primary aluminium from other countries. European Aluminium indicates that in 2017, around 900 thousand tonnes of scrap were exported. If Europe recycled all of its own aluminium scrap rather than exporting it, imports of primary aluminium would be reduced by about 24% and 9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions would be avoided.

The industry points to foreign recyclers who don’t work to the same standards as European ones, as part of the problem. There are calls for a mandatory EU certification scheme for all recyclers, with third party verification to guarantee compliance with EU environmental standards. These measures will certainly help, but companies in the value chain should be making more efforts themselves to promote the collection of their products at the end of their life, because there are wider trade implications.  

Europe is a successful exporter of high value aluminium products including cars, boats, and aircraft. The EU exports more cars than it imports. Aluminium is key to the future of lightweight, carbon efficient transport and European companies have developed the alloys needed to optimise performance. The aluminium content of these cars, boats and aircraft needs to be brought back at the end of its life, so it can be used again to manufacture more of the same.  In this way European industry will retain its lead in low carbon aluminium products. 

This transition to a low carbon, circular economy will have far reaching implications and new supply chains will be needed. When there is a higher tax on carbon emissions and a border tax to penalise carbon intensive imports, end-of-life aluminium will become a sought after raw material for low carbon products 

Hydro reports that the purchase, sorting and cleaning of scrap adds 10-20% to the cost of CIRCAL, yet they are still experiencing growth in sales driven by the Europe’s sustainability targets which require all new buildings to operate at net zero carbon emissions by 2030. When taxes on high carbon primary aluminium remove or even reverse this price differential, industry will need to collect and recycle more scrap by bringing high value end-of-life alloys back to Europe. 

The lifetime of vehicles is ten years so there are those who will argue that it is too early to make changes.  Nevertheless we should be aware of the potential for international competitors to gain an advantage by recycling Europe’s scrap back to its consumers as high value imports. And those who act first are more likely to win any future scrap over Europe’s scrap aluminium.

Published: 17 February 20

Back to news list