What is the effect of aluminum beverage cans on the environment?
By Adrian McDemortt
Each year, more than 40 million aluminum beverage cans find the way to landfills in America. This amounts to more than 120 cans for every American.
Aluminum is the most commonly found metal on Earth. It is the third most commonly available element after oxygen and silicon. Bauxite is the most common ore from which aluminum is mined.
Aluminum has many useful properties. It is light, strong, easy to manipulate, resistant to corrosion, and it can be recycled endlessly. It is impermeable, does not catch fire, and has good conductive properties.
Aluminum is all around us – in cars, airplanes, electronics, lamps, furniture, bicycles, packaging, and cans.
Bauxite is chiefly found in tropical and subtropical zones on earth. Brazil, Guinea, and India are among the top bauxite mining sites. The US is a heavy importer of bauxite.
Mining is an environmentally destructive activity, and the same holds true for bauxite mining. Since bauxite occurs near the surface, mining for bauxite requires the denudation of the entire mining site. This means that the entire site is stripped off vegetation and animal life. Mining ores is a dirty, destructive process and bauxite mining is no different.
The Bayer process, a widely used process to extract aluminum from bauxite, results in the creation of a toxic sludge with very high PH. This sludge is buried under the earth and ultimately becomes a toxic landfill that can kill plants and animals, and lay waste to vast tracts of land.
Aluminum production is a highly energy intensive activity. The production of one kilogram of aluminum requires 15 kilowatt hours of electricity. This amount of electricity is equivalent to the daily power requirement of a single home in many parts of the world.
The smelting of aluminum results in the emission of greenhouse gases and toxins such as carbon dioxide, fluoride, sulfur dioxide, and toxic waste.
The production of aluminum from mining onwards is a highly energy intensive one. It uses vast amounts of water and contributes to environmental degradation because of the toxic wastes generated. The mining, smelting, refining operations are harmful to the health of people involved and also for those in the vicinity of such operations.
Aluminum leaves behind a massive carbon footprint. Its many uses notwithstanding, it is essential that aluminum manufacturers look for ways to mitigate its harmful effects on the environment.
Recycling seems like a good idea but it is falling short of addressing the real issues related to environmental damage that aluminum production is causing. The fundamental question to ask is if we really need aluminum cans for consuming beverages. A single-use can requires a lot of energy for production and if not recycled it hurts the environment. The recycling process too requires energy. The cans have to be sorted, transported, smelted and then remanufactured.