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The future for aluminium recycling

Closed loop supply operations around the world are helping to ensure that aluminium remains a sustainable option for automotive manufacturers. By Matt Ayres

Aluminium’s use in automotive manufacturing continues to grow. The material allows a weight saving of up to 50% over competing materials, making it an attractive choice for OEMs looking to improve the fuel efficiency of their vehicles through decreased weight. This is important due to increasingly stringent fuel economy standards around the world, such as the proposed target in the US which requires all car manufacturers to improve the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Aluminium scrap for recyclingHowever, the potential to make vehicles lighter is not the only environmentally friendly advantage afforded by aluminium: it is also a highly recyclable material. This means that 95% of the aluminium contained in end-of-life vehicles can be reclaimed and recycled, preventing the need for carbon intensive processes involved when producing the alloy in its primary form. By recycling automotive aluminium that has already been through the use phase of an older vehicle and producing new vehicle from it, closed loop recycling is achieved.

While closing the loop for aluminium is easier said than done due to financial constraints and increasing demand for the lightweight metal, several companies are working to improve their carbon footprints by including closed loop recycling in their production strategies. One such company is Hydro, a global aluminium supplier headquartered in Norway, that hopes to promote aluminium’s reputation as a sustainable manufacturing material. Hydro’s Executive Vice President with responsibility for rolled products, Oliver Bell, is optimistic about the future for closed loop recycling with aluminium.

“The requirements to recycle are increasing,” Bell says. “Everybody is looking for closed loop recycling, and with aluminium we are working to ensure that. The costs of collection are always an issue, but thanks to the value of aluminium, the collection costs are basically paid by the material. We have a wonderful material which can be easily recycled and more or less pays for its own recycling through its value.

“Aluminium is never consumed, it is just used and recycled. I believe that aluminium has a great future in that respect. We’re currently investing in a new recycling centre in one of our facilities, close to our rolling mills in Norf and Grevenbroich in Germany. In general, we are actively promoting recycling and investing in recycling facilities to close the loop with our customers.”

Aluminium Lifecycle
Aluminium Lifecycle

With the inclusion of this new recycling centre in its overall strategy, Hydro hopes to increase its recycling volume from 177,000 tonnes of post-consumed scrap in 2013 to 250,000 tonnes in 2020. Operations like this are promising to the future of sustainable aluminium recycling in Europe, helping to provide local OEMs with a higher quantity of recycled aluminium to use in their products.

Indeed, localised recycling loops are an especially important consideration if carbon emissions are to be kept down. China and India have previously imported one million tons of aluminium scrap from Europe to be recycled, with the majority of that material returning to Europe for use in manufacturing. A larger closed loop recycling infrastructure provided by suppliers in Europe is likely to encourage European OEMs to take advantage of recycled aluminium closer to home, eliminating the carbon emissions associated with long distance haulage.

Novelis, another aluminium supplier with operations in Europe, claims to be building the world’s largest recycling network. The company’s considerable investment involves expanding its current facilities to include recycling capabilities, and arguably the most impressive of these expansions is taking place in Nacherstedt, Germany. The Novelis plant here is projected to become the largest and most advanced recycling facility in the world, capable of processing 18 different types of scrap metal while simultaneously removing unwanted materials such as paper and plastic from the scrap stream.

The expanded Nacherstedt facility alone will add 400 kilotons of sheet ingot capacity, bringing Novelis’s recycled inputs up to 50% in its global products. But according to Roland Harings, Vice President and General Manager of Automotive at Novelis, this is just the beginning of a significant investment in the company’s global recycling operations.

Kunshan_BrazingSheet“Novelis is heavily investing to increase its recycling capacity and capabilities,” he says. “For example, our expanded recycling plant in Latchford, UK was recently commissioned, meaning the plant’s capacity will increase by over a third to become Europe’s largest closed-loop recycling operation solely for automotive aluminium rolled products.”

Other Novelis expansions around the world include those at facilities in Pinda, Brazil and Yeongju, South Korea. Altogether, the aim for the supplier is to reach a 75% increase in recycling capability by 2015, rising to 80% by 2020. Once that 80% is reached, Novelis says it will eliminate 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gas from the aluminium production chain. However, the company still recognises that it will need to produce some primary aluminium in order to meet demand. New aluminium-intensive vehicles such as Ford’s F-150 and Jaguar’s upcoming XE mean that recycled aluminium alone will not be enough to meet the large quantities of aluminium required by OEMs.

Dr Mark White is Chief Technical Specialist in Lightweight Vehicle Structures at Jaguar Land Rover, and thinks that it is important for OEMs to take some responsibility for closed loop aluminium recycling alongside suppliers.

“The number of aluminium cars in the marketplace will more than double between last year and next year as a result of initiatives from JLR, Ford and the premium OEMs in Germany,” he says. “At Jaguar Land Rover, we have put closed loop recycling centres in place already at Castle Bromwich, with Solihull to follow with a fully closed loop system. Halewood will also become a fully closed loop facility in the next 12 months. Then we have a programme to take all of our Tier 1 stamping suppliers and apply that same philosophy to them. By 2020, our goal with Novelis and with our other suppliers is to be at 75% recycled metal for every Jaguar Land Rover we make.”

Such lofty ambitions for closed loop initiatives from both aluminium suppliers and OEMs are inevitably helping to encourage recycled aluminium. As with any business, though, the financial implications of closed loop recycling will play a factor in its adoption. US-based aluminium supplier Alcoa might be dedicated to recycling with its continued projects encouraging communities to deposit their beverage cans and food packaging responsibly, but Randall Scheps, the company’s Marketing Director for Automotive Sheet, provides a more modest perspective on the future of closed loop operations.

aluminium scrap recycling

“It’s all driven by the economics of the recyclers and the sorting that is required for them to get the best price,” he says. “Closed loop recycling is a great concept, but it also has to make economic sense.”

With the arrival of the new F-150 in 2015, aluminium suppliers involved in the North American market will experience the highest volume aluminium application in the automotive industry to date. And with a greater percentage of aluminium intensive vehicles on the road, the potential supply for recycled aluminium greatly increases. However, as the average lifespan for a vehicle is between 15 and 20 years, it may be a long time yet before suppliers can rely solely on scrapped aluminium for their automotive products. The future for recycled aluminium looks bright, but it will need to be supplemented by primary aluminium in order to meet demand for years to come.

This article appeared in the Q3 2014 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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