Sustainable Industry

The base metal for sustainable solutions

Brazilian aluminum industry’s sustainable footprint is reflected in an international certification attesting to its high environmental standards, carbon emission around 60% lower than the world average and high recycling rates

Sustainable initiatives by the Brazilian aluminum industry have enormous potential to help the country tackle the climate crisis. In addition to being a national and international role model in sustainability practices, this industry can also improve the environmental performance – and economic efficiency – of other industries, such as transport or construction.

As such, the aluminum industry’s initiatives are in line with the strategy of the National Confederation of Industry (CNI) towards a low-carbon economy in Brazil based on four pillars: energy transition, carbon market, circular economy, and forest conservation.

In Brazil, aluminum should be considered from the perspective of a fully structured and competitive supply chain, from the mining stage to the end product and its subsequent recycling. It is an integrated chain, which provides a strategic bedrock for the country’s social, economic and sustainable development.

“Aluminum is a reasonably new metal (1825), with sustainable environmental attributes, such as endless recyclability. It is a light metal that helps reduce emissions in various applications and, therefore, we believe it is the solution for a sustainable life for future generations,” says Valéria Lima, Market and Competitiveness Manager with the Brazilian Aluminum Association (ABAL).

In addition to being endlessly recyclable – using only about 5% of the energy needed to produce it the first time – aluminum is the base metal for sustainable solutions in the transport industry, for example. By making vehicles lighter, it affords fuel-efficiency, reduced emissions, increased load capacity, and less wear on tires, parts and road pavements. Aluminum bicycles reconcile lightness and endurance, thus ensuring joyful, healthy and better rides.

In packaging, it serves as a barrier and prevents food and medicine from being affected by the action of light and moisture, thus affording goods with a longer shelf life. In the construction industry, it helps to make architectural projects greener.

Certification – The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for a number of considerations on consumption, production and on the way we relate to society and the environment. And aluminum fits perfectly this value proposition for a sustainable future. It is not by chance that the London Metal Exchange (LME) –, which references the price of aluminum, announced last year its intention to launch a dedicated platform to trade in the so-called green aluminum.

In July 2016, ABAL joined the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI), a global non-profit organization that spearheads an initiative to establish rigorous standards for the certification of aluminum products, with a focus on its value chain. In Brazil, the alumina and primary aluminum production plants are all certified to ASI’s international Performance and Chain of Custody standards. This means that the country relies on the highest standards of performance in the ESG pillars (Environment, Social and Governance) in these stages of the aluminum chain.

In addition to these stages, others such as mining, processing and recycling now have certifications, too. One such example is that of the Companhia Brasileira do Alumínio (CBA), which operates in all stages of the chain, and has an integrated certification covering all stages.

Valéria Lima explained that the ASI certification is extremely complex. “It was designed to meet the demand from large aluminum consumers, such as BMW and Nespresso, with a view to encouraging sustainability with suppliers and customers. ASI standards are very strict and rely on third party audits. The bauxite and refinery stages are fully certified, and the primary aluminum production stage, which is very power-intensive and the top emitter, is also certified,” he says.

Greenhouse effect – A study of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Brazilian aluminum supply chain – from mining to recycling – conducted by ABAL in 2010 revealed that the carbon footprint of Brazilian aluminum is less than half the global average. When it comes to the production of primary aluminum, while the Brazilian average emissions was 2,661 tons of COeq/ton. aluminum, the world average was 7,100 tons of COeq/ton. aluminum.

CO2 emissions are primarily related in primary aluminum and alumina production processes. Together, they account for approximately 90% of the total, including direct and indirect emissions (including transport and energy). According to supply chain data, Brazil has 4,250 tons of COeq/ton. aluminum emissions, while the world average reaches 9,635 tons of COeq/ton. aluminum emissions.

Electric energy accounts for about 67% of the power required for primary aluminum production. This power – which in Brazil is largely hydro power – gives Brazilian aluminum a carbon footprint that is around 60% lower than the global average, according to a study published by ABAL in 2010. While in Brazil electricity is the prevalent source of power, in China – the world’s largest aluminum producer – it is coal, with its carbon footprint about five times greater than that of Brazil.

This comparative advantage is primarily due to the essentially clean and renewable hydroelectric mix, and world-class process technology and high recycling rates.

The industrial companies affiliated with ABAL have made significant progress in terms of efficiency and emission reduction in the production of alumina and primary aluminum, with long-term goals in line with decarbonization trends. In 1990-2010, while production increased by 67%, emissions of perfluorocarbons (PFCs) dropped by about 57%.

Refineries have been replacing power capabilities (boilers that used to burn oil or natural gas) with a biomass-based steam production unit (eucalyptus wood chips from reforestation areas), resulting in a reduction of 43% in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a survey conducted by ABAL, in 2015 alone, if the bauxite and alumina produced in Brazil and exported were processed here, thereby avoiding imports of primary aluminum required in the Brazilian industrial sector, around 900 thousand tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would have been avoided in the transport sector alone.

What’s more: if, in 2015, all the production of processed products in Brazil were based on the aluminum produced domestically, emissions of at least 1.25 million tons of CO2 would have been avoided.

Positive impact – Increased use of aluminum in the transport sector is due to the greater use of this metal in the manufacture of passenger cars, trucks, buses, boats, subway cars, and trains. Its light weight and strength properties boost safety while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent forecast by consulting firm Ducker Worldwide for the automotive industry indicates up to 30% increase in aluminum consumption over the next 10 years, mainly in countries that regulate emission thresholds and sustainable mobility programs.

In the construction sector, expectations are also favorable, thanks to the diversity of aluminum products, along with a concern with sustainable construction projects. The list of items involving aluminum includes frames, cladding panels, facades, structures for roofing and side closings, dividers, ceilings, boxes, molds, scaffolding and props.

Green buildings also provide opportunities for the use of aluminum, as recyclability and eco-efficiency in the use of construction and architectural possibilities that favor the best use of natural lighting are essential for these projects.

Recycling – About 50% of the aluminum consumed in the country comes from recycling. The world average is 28.5%, and China – the main player in the sector –, reaches as much as 19.1%. For over 10 years, the recycling rate for aluminum cans in Brazil has been around 97%. Recycling grows as consumption grows.

The packaging segment, which accounts for the largest consumption of aluminum products in Brazil (41%), required 581.1 thousand tons of aluminum in 2020, with a predominance of beverage cans. The amount was equivalent to that of 2019, although the past year has been atypical due to the global health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Around 31 billion items were recycled in 2020, which attests that nearly all cans available on the market were collected and recycled, proving the efficiency of the reverse logistics system for aluminum cans in the country.

Versatility – Aluminum is a global commodity that is produced in more than 230 plants located in 42 countries on all five continents. The global production of primary aluminum in 2020 totaled 67 million tons, and China alone accounted for 37.1 million tons, or 56% of the total.

The use of aluminum is relatively recent. Man had already been familiar with gold, silver, copper, iron, and glass for millennia, when the economic aluminum production process was developed in 1886.

Despite being found in around 8% in the Earth’s crust, the reason for this late appearance is that aluminum has a high chemical affinity with oxygen, to which it binds very strongly. Thus, the amount of energy needed to separate aluminum from oxygen meant the greatest difficulty in separating this metal.

Once produced, aluminum works as a real energy bank for future generations since, as stated earlier, it can be endlessly recycled using around 5% of the power required to produce it the first time. Aluminum has a long list of intrinsic properties: it is lightweight, corrosion resistant, highly conductive and reflective, non-toxic, durable, and recyclable.

Through various processing methods and the use of alloys, aluminum takes on the desired shape, strength and density. Casting, rolling, forging, and extrusion provide designers and manufacturers with countless solutions. Aesthetically, aluminum provides beautiful solutions for facades and even the manufacture of art pieces or tools with a bold design.