By Jacob Kizer
In the modern day, the aluminum can has become a trademark of mass consumption in the globalized world, as global beverage consumption uses about 200 billion cans annually, or 6,700 cans per second (Worldwatch Institute, 2006). From the extraction of its bare components out of the ground to the recycling bin, the aluminum can is a focal point of multiple international issues that were touched on in this class. These issues range from the extraction of bauxite ore across the globe, the companies that maintain authority over the mining process, and the influence of new technologies and practices in production and recycling. Utilizing a political economy perspective will allow us to examine the implications behind the activities of transnational aluminum production corporations, newfound global demand for portable beverage containers, and the powers that are exercised through demand and by private entities in the global market economy. A perspective of advancing and green technologies can also be used to look at how we can curb the social & environmental dangers of bauxite mining, and how we can improve and make better use of the aluminum recycling process.
Aluminum cans today can be traced back to 1959, Coors Brewing Company introduced the first “two-piece”, seven-ounce aluminum can, and simultaneously started up a recycling program in which the company started paying people for their used cans (White, 2017). As steel/tin cans that were already in market had an impact on the taste and quality of their contents, whereas the new aluminum cans did not, the invention spread like wildfire as more brewing companies and soda producers started using the two-piece aluminum design. By this point in time, aluminum was already in wide use throughout the world in many kinds of products. In WWII, the military used vast amounts of aluminum in the production of things like aircraft, naval ships, and mess kits. These huge outputs led to a greater need for recycled aluminum, and scrap drives all over America incentivized citizens to turn in their aluminum products (Rockoff, 2007). Through expansive recycling campaigns from the government and from companies, the high recyclability of aluminum itself has been discovered and honed. Despite its great potential for recycling, though, aluminum is the most energy- and resource-intensive metal to mine and produce. Let’s take a look at the beginning of this mining and production process. First, bauxite ore must be extracted from the ground and refining it into aluminum oxide, or alumina. This extraction-to-refinement process is known as the Bayer process. A mining operation extracts the ore through open-pit mining. The bauxite ore itself is only 45 to 60% aluminum oxide. It must be crushed, milled and filtered of red mud, which becomes a waste product. In order to bring the remaining material into a stable form, it is heated up to 1,200 degrees Celsius. This process uses huge amounts of energy, and in countries that produce alumina, such as Australia, Guinea, Jamaica and Brazil, this energy comes mostly from heavily polluting coal plants or environmentally and socially disruptive hydroelectric dams (Leanne Farrell, Earth Works Group (U.S.), Oxfam America, 2004). Refined aluminum is sent to various beverage producers where it is shaped into the famous two-piece design. Once a can is filled with its beverage, it goes into stores and then into the hands of consumers. Depending on the beverage, these cans can travel for thousands of miles from the factory to the store on refrigerated trucks – there are seven Coors breweries that serve the U.S., over 3 million square miles of land area for traveling cans (Brewing Locations, 2017). Based on different figures, it’s believed that while the recycling rate of aluminum cans in the U.S. is increasing, the number lies somewhere between 50 and 70 percent(Hammack, 2015) (Leanne Farrell, Earth Works Group (U.S.), Oxfam America, 2004) (Meenan, 2015), despite the fact that it is 100% recyclable material (Recycling, 2017). Every year, the waste from unrecycled aluminum cans adds up to a billion dollars (Recycling, 2017), and recycling industries in America pay out approximately 800 million dollars for recycled cans (Recycling, 2017).
From a political economy perspective, what stands out about the aluminum can industry is a similar issue that applies to aluminum-derived products across the globe, such as cars, aircraft and ships. This is the issue of bauxite mining. Bauxite mining in the modern world has implications that intersect the problems of globalization, transnationals, privatization, postcolonialism, and environmental/social upheaval. In Jamaica, the mining activities of international aluminum corporations like Alcan and Alcoa result in forced relocations of native populations, removal of ecologically critical top soils and vegetation, disruptive access infrastructure, pollution from disproportionate oil consumption, and pollution from waste products like red mud (Coke, Weir, & Hill, 1987). There are some deep and disturbing parallels that run between bauxite in Jamaica and what we’ve learned about mining in India from Vandana Shiva in Soil Not Oil. Not only does the bauxite mining industry contribute significantly to a global system of trade that runs on fossil fuels (i.e. factories, planes, trains, trucks, ships), but it continues a long trend in which western private business interests have forced the commodification and privatization of land for the interest of profit – at the expense of native populations and environments which have struggled to have a voice on the global stage since the dawning of the era of colonialism.
Despite the glaring issues present within the global system of bauxite mining responsible for aluminum can production, there is some room for optimism as we look into how technology has improved the production of the two-piece aluminum can, and how improved recycling techniques can create a completely closed-loop process of production, consumption, and recycling. One example of improved technology in can production is the reduction in the size of the tapered end of the two-piece can since the 1960’s, from 60mm in diameter to 54mm. This small change has allowed manufacturers to save over 90 million kilograms of aluminum annually (Hammack, 2015). What’s also worth mentioning is the difference in energy cost between primary (use of newly refined, “virgin” alumina) and secondary (material recycling) production processes. Secondary production sees at least a 90% decrease in energy requirements from primary production (Gaustad, Olivetti, & Kirchain, 2012). Advanced technologies show us that it may be possible to increase the efficiency of the secondary process through new ways to remove unwanted elements in scrap streams that come not just from recycled cans, but from automotive heaps and other used product waste as well. There are various possible physical separation technologies such as magnetic, air, and spectrographic separation techniques that can remove materials such as steel, plastic, foam and glass from the heap; there are also chemical separation techniques that remove hydrogen and other gases (Gaustad, Olivetti, & Kirchain, 2012). Further research indicates that hydrogen energy, a clean energy source, can be generated through recycled aluminum cans by putting them into contact with sodium hydroxide (Martínez, Benítes, Gallegos, & Sebastián, 2005). Such research shows that increasing the rate of recycled cans can lead us closer to a closed-loop, low-energy requirement system of production while also expanding possibilities to used recycled cans for clean energy production.
The aluminum can is one of the most common, most recognizable products in the world today. Through research from a number of different perspectives, we can see how this simple product leaves a complex puzzle behind. Is it possible for the aluminum can, and perhaps the aluminum industry at large, to escape the perils of destructive mining practices in tropical countries? Bauxite mining has been proven to be a blight to environmental and social systems in countries like Jamaica, Guinea, and India, both through direct forces (mining, population displacement) and indirect forces (high energy use, fossil fuel dependence, disproportionate corporate control). Though the profit incentive and the wasteful practices of many consumers may present a large barrier to progress, aluminum is nonetheless a 100% recyclable material, allowing for the possibility of the industry to one day achieve a fully or nearly closed-loop system of aluminum production, consumption and recycling. Aluminum also has the potential to generate clean hydrogen energy. Through all this, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the aluminum can, and the system that brings everybody’s favorite alcoholic and sugar-laden beverages to their local grocers.
Brewing Locations. (2017). Retrieved from MillerCoors: https://www.millercoors.com/breweries/brewing-locations
Coke, L. B., Weir, C. C., & Hill, V. G. (1987, March). Environmental Impact of Bauxite Mining and Processing in Jamaica. Social and Economic Studies, 36(1), 289-325.
Gaustad, G., Olivetti, E., & Kirchain, R. (2012, January). Improving aluminum recycling: A survey of sorting and impurity removal technologies. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 58, 79-87.
Leanne Farrell, Earth Works Group (U.S.), Oxfam America. (2004). Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment. Earthworks.
Martínez, S. S., Benítes, W. L., Gallegos, A. A., & Sebastián, P. (2005, July 15). Recycling of aluminum to produce green energy. Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, 88(2), 237-243.
Meenan, M. (2015, May 20). Study Finds Aluminum Cans the Sustainable Package of Choice. Retrieved from The Aluminum Association: http://www.aluminum.org/news/study-finds-aluminum-cans-sustainable-package-choice
Recycling. (2017). Retrieved from The Aluminum Association: http://www.aluminum.org/industries/production/recycling
Rockoff, H. (2007, September). Keep on Scrapping: The Salvage Drives of World War II. National Bureau of Economic Research.
White, S. (2017, March 9). How a beer can kicked off the recycling revolution. Retrieved from MillerCoors Blog: http://www.millercoorsblog.com/history/coors-aluminum-can/
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