Incredibly abundant, easily recyclable and with clean production widespread, low-impact aluminum is already available in many industries. Unfortunately, the outdoor industry is not yet one of them.
What is aluminum and where does it come from?
Aluminum is the second most abundant metallic element in Earth’s crust after silicon. In other words, aluminum is not in short supply.
Getting to it, however, is another matter. It is found within a reddish ore called Bauxite, which is extracted primarily from Australia, Brazil and India. From here, the ore undergoes a chemical refining process, electrolysis, more chemicals and a lot of heat to produce pure, molten aluminum.
Is aluminum sustainable?
Like other extractive mining activities, aluminum extraction and production come with a large impact. Initially, vast areas need to be cleared of vegetation for open pit mining, and debris and dust from these mines is known to cause health hazards, can negatively impact nearby agriculture, and can clog and pollute surrounding waterways.
Furthermore, the mining industry contributes to an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions, with aluminum being among the greatest energy-consumers of all minerals. The vast majority of aluminum is produced in China, where a substantial portion of the energy is derived from coal. Finally, at end of life, 27% of aluminum ends up in landfills, accounting for 7 million tonnes waste per year.
These impacts are significant, but there is another side to the aluminum story. Aluminum is easily recycled, and with 70% of aluminum currently being collected and recycled globally, aluminum is one of the greatest recycling success stories around. Moreover, so-called “green aluminum,” or aluminum produced using clean, renewable hydropower, is produced in large quantities in the US, Norway and Canada, which slashes its carbon intensity compared to coal power. Producing recycled aluminum, meanwhile, requires just a fraction (5%) of the energy required for primary aluminum production.
Finally, a reputable and established non-profit, the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), provides the acknowledged sustainability performance and chain of custody standards for the aluminum value chain.
How to find responsible aluminum
In sum, this means that not only is the element aluminum abundant, but responsible aluminum produced that is either recycled or is produced from renewable energy is also widely available on the market today. Furthermore, a rigorous, third-party golden standard, the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), provides sustainability performance and chain-of-custody confidence to industry and consumers that they are not supporting the most unsustainable industry practices.
This is important, because in the absence of any other guarantees one can assume the worst about aluminum’s origins and impacts. That said, aluminum from ASI certified producers is virtually non-existent in the outdoor industry at the time of writing as are aluminum takeback schemes. The reasons for this are many and likely begin with the specific material quality requirements of climbing and other PPE within hardgoods. Supplier relationships are also sacrosanct when it comes to material quality and as such, moving suppliers and meeting material performance and safety standards are no small challenge. Add the pandemic and resulting supply chain shortages to this mix and it is possible to see how interest in this rapidly growing subject may have been derailed.
With any luck, this is only a temporary setback that will see both industry and consumer interest in responsible aluminum rise once again.
Aluminum Stewardship Initiative
The ASI Performance and Chain of Custody Standards set requirements for the responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminium. These two standards form the basis of the ASI Certification program.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell
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