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Expert forum looks at four Rs for aluminum

PHOTO: RIO TINTO

Aluminum is a highly versatile material. It can be used for everything from automobile bodies to lining in milk cartons. One of its other significant benefits is that it is highly recyclable — about 73 per cent of the aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use in some form.

But how can aluminum producers and businesses that use it in their products work together to contribute to a world where the non-magnetic, ductile metal plays a major role in sustainability? These questions and others were tackled on December 9, at the Rio Tinto Aluminium Japan Sustainability Forum inaugural meeting,  which was held at Fukuracia Marunouchi Oazo in the Marunouchi Kitaguchi Building.

Speaking at the event was an impressive line-up, which comprised:

  • Tolga Egrilmezer, vice president of Sales & Marketing at Rio Tinto
  • Yutaka Matsuzawa, deputy director-general of Environmental Regeneration and Material Cycles Bureau in the Ministry of the Environment
  • Fiona Solomon, CEO of the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI)
  • Nick Madden, senior vice president and chief procurement officer at Novelis, Inc.
  • Mark White, innovation director and automotive industry consultant at DSW Automotive
  • Michiya Kanai, circular economy manager at Nihon Tetra Pak K.K.
  • Alexander Leutwiler, procurement group manager at Nestlé Nespresso S.A.

The timing of the event was particularly apt. Just the week before, Apple Inc. had announced that it had taken delivery of its first batch of aluminum that had been made using a carbon-free process. The aluminum had been sourced through Elysis, a Montréal-based joint venture between Rio Tinto Group and Alcoa Corp.

Eco Impact

Egrilmezer began by discussing the need for sustainability across industries: “A sustainable future is no longer something that is nice to have. It is an absolute must have.”

He also remarked on the need for collaboration to tackle the question of sustainability in the aluminum value chain: “There is no one formula to solve this issue. We have to work together as an industry along the value chain for the success of aluminum. We will each, in our own space, certainly continue to work to come up with answers, but we must come together as an industry to solve our challenges.”

But he believes that endeavours such as Elysis have great potential to change the environmental impact of aluminum production.

“To put it in the context of Canada alone, once we start to use Elysis’s technology, it has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by seven million tonnes [per year industry-wide] — the equivalent of effectively removing 1.8 million cars from the Earth,” he said.

One of his strongest points was that companies such as Rio Tinto need to con-sider the interests of end users: “We need to think about our customers’ customers, who want to know where and how their products are made, and what impact they have on the environment.”

“A sustainable future is no longer something that is nice to have. It is an absolute must have.”

FOUR Rs

Matsuzawa called for businesses to take the traditional three “Rs” — reduce, reuse and recycle — and add one more “R”: renewable. He also addressed the need for more businesses to move out of a linear value chain and toward a circular one when it comes to materials.

He said that he saw great potential in multi-stakeholder groups and organizations to improve industry-wide sustainability. Matsuzawa brought up the example of the RE100 — a group of companies that are collectively committed to sourcing 100 per cent renewable electricity by no later than 2050 — and said that similar efforts were under way by organizations such as ASI.

He added that one way the Japanese government was addressing the subject of sustainability was through the Green Value Chain Platform, a joint guideline issued by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of the Environment. It seeks to cut down on the production of greenhouse gases in an industrial context.

Solomon provided back-ground about ASI and its role, explaining that “ASI’s vision as an organization is to maximize the contribution of aluminum to a sustainable society.” She added that ASI’s execution of this vision is through its certification program, which “aims to recognize and to collaboratively foster responsible production, responsible sourcing and stewardship of aluminum as a metal.”

ASI covers the whole aluminum value chain — everything from primary production phases, such as bauxite mining and aluminum smelting, to downstream manufacturing processes and aluminum’s use in areas such as manufacturing, infrastructure and packaging.

There are 111 ASI members spread around the world, and companies in 19 nations have been certified through ASI. Given the number of different stakeholders that make up ASI, Solomon emphasized that this diversity helps to make certification a process that balances sustainability concerns with pragmatism and commercial viability.

Driving Force

Two participants with close connections to the automotive industry spoke about the role that aluminum plays at their respective companies. Novelis, as Madden explained, is the world’s leading producer of flat-rolled aluminum and the world’s largest recycler of aluminum. Supplying three million tonnes of flat-rolled product shipments yearly, they are the only producer of flat-rolled aluminum that can supply all the major automotive regions locally in four different continents.

Madden said one area in which Novelis has been supporting aluminum-based innovations in vehicle design and engineering is at its customer-solution centers in North America, Europe and Asia. These facilities are led by teams of researchers, designers and engineers, and are located close to automakers’ manufacturing facilities. He said this allows Novelis “to determine how to maximize lightweight, high-strength aluminum to design the best solutions for specific applications at the right cost in order to compete more effectively against steel and other materials.”

At Jaguar Land Rover, meanwhile — where White had a long career and worked on the design of more than 30 car bodies — more than half of those vehicles were aluminum intensive. He said that in the mid 1980s, “there was also a push by the aluminum companies to encourage [original equipment manufacturers] to use aluminum in place of steel to save weight. The real lightweight focus started in earnest in the 1990s, and production volume really did not happen until the 21st century.”

As White explained, one example of the benefits of developing aluminum-intensive vehicles is the Range Rover, which saw a weight decrease of 420 kilograms by switching from steel-intensive to aluminum-intensive manufacturing. This weight reduction allowed Jaguar Land Rover to make other changes, such as being able to decrease engine or fuel tank size, while not compromising range.

AIM HIGH

Kanai said that Tetra Pak, which in 2018 sold 189 billion units in 170 countries, is aiming for 100 per cent recyclable materials. Although most of the material that goes into a Tetra Pak is paper, there is aluminum foil in the packaging. He explained that the company has a strong commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This is not just from the perspective of being ecologically conscious; it also takes human rights into account, both in terms of how raw materials are being sourced and how communities around the world are being influenced by environmental change.

Tetra Pak is a founding member of ASI, and Kanai explained how, considering the scale on which it orders aluminum, it can encourage its suppliers also to be ASI members. Currently, nine out of 10 of Tetra Pak’s aluminum suppliers are members, and the company has a long-term goal of sourcing all of its aluminum from ASI member producers.

Nespresso signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 with Rio Tinto to produce capsules for portion coffee made with 100 per cent sustainable aluminum by this year. Leutwiler pointed out that his company is more clearly in the public eye when it comes to sustainability, because the life cycle of their coffee capsules is shorter. “We are on the front lines of consumers’ finger pointing. And so we have to face that, but I think my message for today is that we should face that as a group, as a team and as an industry, not thinking in silos.”

He said that the process of encouraging recyclability and insisting on ASI-certified partners isn’t easy, but it’s important “to show the industry that it’s feasible.” Leutwiler said that it was equally important to communicate Nespresso’s goals and achievements to consumers, and to encourage them to take part in recycling, which it does using everything from celebrity endorsers such as George Clooney to active social media campaigns.

Following the individual remarks from the speakers, there was a spirited round table discussion that fielded questions from attendees. In all, the forum was an enlightening and inspiring look into the state of sustainable aluminum around the world and in a variety of industries.

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