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We’ve seen how aluminum cans are made, where they go and how they get there.

But what do they leave behind?

As we’ve learned in previous posts, aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable, and today more than half of them get recycled, according to the Can Manufactures Institute’s 2011 Sustainability Report. Meanwhile, aluminum manufacturers have also been doing their part to leave less of an impact on the Earth. Aluminum has historically been an industry that used a significant amount of energy and released high rates of perfluorocarbon, a powerful greenhouse gas. Aluminum manufacturing creates about 1% of all greenhouse gas emissions, but the industry’s ecological impact has been growing smaller in recent years, as suppliers have worked to integrate new energy-saving policies and practices into production.

The International Aluminum Institute’s Aluminum for Future Generations initiative took a proactive approach to cutting emissions and energy usage, with a voluntary plan with 13 objectives aimed at continually improving the industry; the top goal is to eventually eliminate PFC emissions from the process completely. Energy consumption has been and still is a critical issue for suppliers, and concerns have been heating up in recent years as more countries look at tightening climate change regulations.

Global aluminum supplier Alcoa operates a subsidiary that generates the energy to power the company’s smelting operations, and the company has made moves that show it’s taking climate change seriously. The company instituted its first greenhouse gas reductions in the early 1990s, and in 1998, established a Climate Change Strategy Team to lead plans for further reductions. Two years ago, the company began linking executives’ performance pay to hitting energy-efficiency targets.

Alcoa’s moves come largely from cutting energy usage through a combination of more efficient practices and an emphasis on renewable energy sources including solar. By 2000, the company had reduced its energy requirements for production to 15 kilowatt hours to make a kilogram of aluminum, from the 55 the process required a century earlier, and today some of the company’s smelters can make due with 13.3 kWh per kilogram or less than a quarter of the energy required at the turn of the last century.

Novelis, another major aluminum supplier, details its “life cycle” approach to sustainability in its 2011 Sustainability Report, from more efficiently mining the bauxite necessary to produce virgin aluminum to creating aluminum sheets from recycled cans, a process that uses about 95% less energy.

Other suppliers may be smaller, but their goals are no less ambitious, including Colorado-based Golden Aluminum, which has a list of sustainability efforts that’s largely focused on recycling but also includes energy-saving measures including its energy-efficient continuous casting technology.

We’re taking a break from the world of cans next month, but check back in May when we’ll share some innovations straight from the floor of the National Restaurant Association’s annual show.

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One Response to “How aluminum suppliers are shrinking their eco-footprints”

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